The Final One: An Analysis of Horror Character Tropes

This series features spoilers for Guillotte & Christiansen’s ‘The Highway of Blood‘ and various horror films. Special thanks to Annie, Gabriella, Jordan, and Ryan for allowing me to pick at your PCs brains!

Who are the characters that come to mind when you think of ‘the final one’? For myself, it is horror icons like Laurie Strode (Halloween), Sally Hardesty (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Sidney Prescott (Scream), and Ash Williams (Evil Dead). They all share the common attribute of being survivors, of shedding their veil of naivety, and in some cases: becoming the monster they sought to escape. How about other classic character tropes: the jock, the cheerleader, the outcast? Placing names to these archetypes is more difficult, seeing as the most memorable parts of these characters are in their spectacularly gruesome deaths. Nevertheless, it is my belief that these archetypes can go beyond being cannon fodder for the embodiment of evil, the cannibal family, or the sadistic masked killer. They can be integral to the development and richness of any horror story, and in some cases, formulate a character foil that accentuates certain qualities of ‘the final one’ for the audience.

This is a series comprising of three parts. The first explores what makes ‘the final one’, and other notable character tropes in the horror genre. The second post introduces mechanics and suggestions on how to implement these tropes into your horror TTRPG. The final post will be an analysis of my own experience running a Call of Cthulhu campaign with using the tropes system.

Character Tropes in Horror

Tropes are fun! In a genre so full of uncertainty and tension; the peekaboo mirror jump scare, investigating (alone) the strange noises in the dark attic, and the great encore of the villain tearing apart its next victim despite being destroyed earlier are all comforting things to the audience. These tropes are stops where they can breathe, safe in the knowledge that there is still some predictability in the film. This familiarity can be applied to the characters and their trends: the cheerleader is first exposed then defiled, the jock goes down swinging, and the stoner reveals the villain’s weakness before being splattered. All who’s left is the popularly known ‘final girl’, equipped with the monster’s weakness, equipped with the power to survive.

The final girl is a term and concept coined by Carol Clover in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, a foundational text that helped shape the analysis of gender in horror films. To be a final girl, a character must adhere to the following formula:

  1. She is the lone female and survivor of the group (main cast) who were pursued by the villain;
  2. and she receives a final confrontation with the villain (she kills or incapacitates the villain, or is saved by an external influence);
  3. and survives because of her implied moral superiority or personal capabilities, demonstrated throughout the film.

At first glance, this formula crafts a progressive heroine that can be championed as a feminist concept; however, these feminist ideals will not be seen until later iterations of the horror genre, barring some exceptions. In truth, the final girl trope is steeped in conservatism and the patriarchal perception. Early final girls like Sally Hardesty (vs. the Sawyers) and Laurie Strode (vs. Michael Myers) were not triumphant against their villains, but instead saved by patriarchal figures: the flatbed driver and Dr. Sam Loomis, respectively. Worse still, the foundational final girl is found defiled in these instances, there is no empowerment or victory in her survival. Sally was driven insane from her experiences with the Sawyers, Laurie breaks down sobbing and powerless at the end of Halloween, and in the 2018 sequel: found tormented and alone in the shadow of Michael Myers. They may be regarded as damsels-in-distress, and in turn provide affirmation to the predominantly male audience that despite her capabilities or superiority, there remains vulnerability in her sex.

Future final girls saw to the shedding of the patriarchal gaze, and the rise of the contemporary heroines that we are more familiar with. The most influential of these heroines is Nancy Thompson (vs. Freddy Krueger) in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Unlike the aforementioned who survived by circumstances out of their control, Nancy was a proactive character who discovered and exploited Freddy’s weakness, ultimately defeating him as the sole survivor. She is arguably the strongest representation of feminism in final girls, based on her self-reliance, confidence in her sexuality, and her refusal to abide by the traditional norms of horror cinema. Just like Nancy, Kirsty Cotton (vs. Julia, Frank, Pinhead, Cenobites: she had an entire rogues’ gallery!) in Hellraiser was a self-sufficient final girl that demonstrated independence and a strong sense of self-identity in her very terrifying situation. Hellraiser differs from other horror movies in its hypersexual and sadomasochistic themes that are intertwined within the fractured Cotton family structure. The horror in this circumstance is internalized, and personal to the final girl. There is duality in the film with the antagonist: Julia, being a product of the audience’s perceived norms for women. She worships the sex appeal of the dominating patriarchal figure: Uncle Frank, despite his sadomasochistic and monstrous form. In comparison, Kirsty rages against her uncle and the themes he represents. Despite the ‘ultimate pleasures’ offered to her by the Cenobites, she rejects the audience’s expectations of temptation and excess in sex: this is what makes her a more nuanced and contemporary final girl.

In the present-day, the final girl archetype has been challenged and increasingly obscured. Gone are the days of formula, and a welcome to the rise of meta-horror, parodies, and anything else to avoid falling into an overused trope. Notable final girls in the current evolution are Sidney Prescott (vs. Ghostface), Sarah Carter (vs. Crawlers) in The Descent, and Victoria Heyes (vs. Art the Clown) in Terrifier. Sidney survives despite defying the final girl’s prerequisite of chastity and overcomes the villains with the help of Gale, another female who is defined as an ambitious, resourceful, and strong-willed character. The main cast of The Descent subverts the audience’s expectations of who is the final girl, as they are all representations of capable, and level-headed women. As the death count rises, tension ramps up as the audience places their bets. Some may think it would be Juno, but Sarah is the one to clamber out from the caves. Her fate is left ambiguous as well, a dark contrast to the flashing lights of ambulances or the finality of escaping. Our most recent final girl is Victoria from Terrifier, and what makes her so unique is in her post-final girl status. Most final girls appear in the sequel or following situation as a capable guide for the next group, or cannon fodder to demonstrate the villain’s return. Instead, the trauma corrupts Victoria; she becomes monstrous like Art, with a disfigured appearance, and the brutality of a live-show death when a talk-show host mocked her. She is not seen as a heroine, but a dark reflection of the atrocities Art the Clown committed, fit for ridicule and loathing.

So, we covered what is known as the final girl; but where do other character tropes fit in? It is my belief that the likes of the jock, the cheerleader, and the outcast are all instruments used by filmmakers to communicate the moral superiority or other unique qualities of the final girl. They are all intrinsically related to one another.

The Jock is an embodiment of patriarchal strength: charming (or vulgar), strong, self-obsessed, and lacking in intelligence. They challenge the final girl with their sex appeal and patriarchal role, conveying temptation of carnal desires, or comfort in the strength of an alpha. When the jock confronts the villain, they often die in a violent fashion to demonstrate the villain’s position of power. After all, if the alpha dies – who is to protect their pack in a time of crisis? The death of the Jock begets the rise of the Final Girl. She must take charge to usurp the villain.

Jack Burrell (Friday the 13th) is a rebel with an adoring girlfriend. Though he was killed when most vulnerable, his sex appeal and boyish attitude marks him as a Jock.

The Cheerleader acts as a character foil to distinguish qualities of the final girl. They are typically attractive, open in their sexuality, and not-so-bright. They harbor qualities similar to the Jock, but what differentiates them is in the message carried. Whereas jocks are slain to showcase the villain’s power, the cheerleader is killed due to her grievous transgressions. These are often juxtaposed against the final girl. Where the cheerleader is distracted, the final girl is alert; the cheerleader is hysterical, but the final girl is calm. The qualities of the cheerleader vary from film to film, but the formula remains the same. The death of the Cheerleader communicates to the audience the qualities necessary to survive. In essence, the Cheerleader ‘cheers’ on the Final Girl in death.

Lynda Van der Klok (Halloween) was a ditsy Cheerleader more interested in gossip and boys. Her expression of sexuality juxtaposed to Laurie’s chastity guarantees a gruesome death.

The Outcast is an amalgamation of three popular stereotypes: the Nerd, the Stoner, and the Token. There is often more than one outcast in any horror media: Shaggy and Velma (Scooby Doo!) are a stoner and nerd, respectively. Tokens are an oddity. They used to be a diversity quota filled by filmmakers with little character development and were generally bland. However, as society has become more inclusive and diverse, the archetypal token has been wiped out. If there is a minority character, they are self-aware of their predicament, and may weaponize meta-horror for their survival.

They are more knowledgeable than other archetypes, and either act as a comic relief, a punching bag, or a minor antagonist. The outcast is not liked but tolerated by the other stereotypes. If there is a lone outcast, they are the subject of ridicule from their peers, with the final girl stepping in to defend them when the cheerleader or jock go too far. Lone outcasts are more likely to become a minor antagonist that impedes the chances of survival for the survivors: a petty retaliation for years of mistreatment. Alternatively, two outcasts jockey each other for the entertainment of others. They are more likable and relatable to the audience due to their shared friendship.

The outcast serves two purposes: to be cannon fodder for the villain, and to reveal the villain’s weakness before death. The villain’s weakness is discovered depending on the type of outcast: a nerd may find it in their books; a stoner discovers it through sheer luck; and a token saw a movie once with a very similar villain…

When it is time for the outcast to die, they may sacrifice themselves to stall the villain; giving the final girl more time to prepare her victory. They do this as an act of appreciation for the final girl’s kindness earlier on. Alternatively, the outcast may betray the final girl and become a minor antagonist. This is usually caused by the gradual corruption of the outcast via the constant ridicule from other archetypes and the horror surrounding them. This antagonist is perceived as emasculated in comparison to the main villain, they are petty in their motives and pathetic in their actions. When death greets them, usually in the form of the villain – the minor antagonist is reserved the most spectacular death, much to the satisfaction of the audience.

The Outcast is the final launchpad for the Final Girl. She may be alone, but she is equipped with the qualities necessary to dominate the villain.

Glen Lantz (A Nightmare on Elm Street) provided Nancy with the know-how in combating Freddy. With his purpose fulfilled, he was next on the chopping block as an Outcast.

With these character tropes explored, we now look on to how they can be implemented into our horror TTRPGs. Look forward to the next post: where the character tropes are distilled into inclusive formulas that players can make characters from, as well as mechanics in play to follow a similar narrative to your favourite horror movies.

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