Horror is a tricky genre. On one hand, its roots are fairly uncomplicated: Some sort of monster is on the loose, and it’s killing everything in sight. However, as cinema continues to shift to keep up with our changing societal beliefs, horror has alternated between embracing old tropes and turning them on their heads. One of the most prominent tropes? That of the final girl — a heroine who (generally) kills the bad guy in the end.
The final girl is supposed to meet a number of criteria: she’s hot, she screams a lot, and she’s a virgin. Fortunately, these notions are beginning to fade, and “final girls” now take all different forms. In particular, they’ve become fully-realized characters rather than simple plot devices. Horror is a genre where women have always played a significant role and, now more than ever before, we should acknowledge those women, past and present, who have prevailed over evil. Here are 15 Horror Movie Heroines You Need To Know About.
15. Sally – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
The 1974 horror classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre brought with it the original final girl, Sally Hardesty. Loosely based on the crimes of psychotic murderer Ed Gein, the film depicts a group of friends who end up stranded in a rural area abandoned by all but a family of cannibals. Leatherface, the chief villain, went on to pave the way for Freddy, Jason, and many others, as well as a remake of the same character in the 2003 remake, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the heroine of which, Erin, also deserves a mention in this list).
As all of her friends are killed off, Sally struggles to protect both herself and her disabled brother, Franklin, from the Sawyers. Once Franklin is dead, Sally flees, exercising her agility and speed to maneuver her way through the forest into a house. When she discovers the house isn’t exactly safe, she crashes through a second story window, and continues to run from her attacker. Even when she is tied and about to be eaten, Sally manages to escape once again in an epic chase scene, evading death a final time. She set the standard for many of the women on this list, securing her a place in horror film history.
14. Jess – Black Christmas
Yet another 1974 slasher that brought about an ’00s remake, Black Christmas tells the story of a group of sorority sisters who begin to receive mysterious, threatening phone calls, and are soon killed off one by one by the madman living in the attic. Known for its ambiguous ending, holiday theme, and use of creepy phone calls, the film had great influence on later classics that appear on this list, such as the Halloween and Scream series.
Though not of the caliber of the final girl we see today, Jess still manages to carve out a place for herself in horror history. After all, she deals with murders of every other woman in the sorority house, all while struggling with an unwanted pregnancy and a difficult boyfriend, Peter. Despite all of this, Jess survives the film, eventually murdering Peter, the alleged killer. Of course, he isn’t really the psycho she’s after, and 2006’s Black X-Mas, while following the same patterns, is actually more of an expansion on the story told in the original. It also has a noteworthy heroine in Katie Cassidy’s Kelli, who is the one to finally defeat the real bad guys.
13. The Shining
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining is regarded as one of the greatest, scariest, and most influential horror films of all time, despite a fairly simple premise. Jack, Wendy, and their son Danny move into an apartment in an isolated mountain hotel, and the presence of ghosts begin to haunt them. Only chef Dick Hallorann seems to know what’s going on, and he tries to warn young Danny that the visions he’s having relate to the mysterious past of the hotel.
In what many consider a metaphor for spousal abuse, Jack begins to go insane, and goes after Wendy when she realizes something is wrong. Confused at what her loving husband has become, and despite her all-consuming fear, Wendy manages to defend herself, hitting Jack with a baseball bat and knocking him down the stairs. When he recovers, he continues to chase his wife and child down, convinced that he must kill Danny. Wendy gets Danny out of the way, uses a knife to cut Jack’s hand, and eventually saves her son by fleeing on a snowcat. While certainly not the greatest heroine on this list, Wendy’s bravery is as evident as her fear.
12. Brigitte – Ginger Snaps
Brigitte and Ginger Fitzgerald in Ginger Snaps are obsessed with death — they pose for disturbing photographs and plan their own suicides. They refuse to be “normal,” and eschew anything that comes with it. But Ginger begins to change; she gets her period, and attracts the attention of not only boys at school, but a creature in the woods. And then she undergoes an altogether different kind of change…
Brigitte goes after her sister, beating the “big dog” down with her camera and managing to get both of them out of harm’s way. She continues to investigate even when everyone assumes Ginger’s symptoms are normal hormonal ailments, and helps try to stop her from transforming into a werewolf. And while it’s all a ridiculous and not-at-all subtle metaphor for becoming a woman, Brigitte’s intelligence and determination make her the heroine here, not to mention her bravery when she chooses to infect herself to save her sister.
11. Sidney – Scream 2
After the success of Wes Craven’s modern meta slasher flick Scream, a sequel was quickly put into production. In Scream 2, Sidney, wanting a normal life after the events of the first film, is now a college student with a new boyfriend and best friend to boot. Unfortunately, her plans are ruined when a copycat killer in the same Ghostface mask begins murdering students around campus, and Sidney must once again work with reporter Gale and police officer Dewey to crack the case.
Sidney somehow always manages to make it out unscathed, but she comes close to death when her ex-boyfriend’s mom, Mrs. Loomis, seeking revenge for her son’s death, holds a knife to her throat. She’s only saved by Cotton, the man who was once accused of killing her own mother, when she promises him all of the press attention if they make it out alive. After Cotton shoots Mrs. Loomis, Gale, presumably thought dead, appears, and in one simultaneous motion, she and Sidney shoot and kill Mickey, the actual killer, without a second thought. Sidney herself is meant to be a subversion of the usually final girl, and it’s just a bonus that she has a badass female journalist on her side.
10. Sarah – The Descent
As a horror film with an all-female cast where the women are fully-realized, sexual but not sexualized beings, The Descent earns its place as a feminist flick by premise alone. When Sarah and her friends go spelunking, they end up in unexplored and very dangerous territory, and must try to survive among the “crawlers”; the blind, blood-thirsty creatures who inhabit the caves. The women face their own emotional obstacles along the way, but their primary focus is survival.
The only real downfall of the movie is the reason that they’re there at all: Juno had an affair with Sarah’s husband before he (and her daughter) died in a tragic accident, and she was hoping to repair their friendship. Sarah, already wrought with survivor’s guilt, learns this from Beth just before she mercy-kills her, and faced with both Juno and the humanoid creatures attacking them, goes into a psychotic rage, and eventually manages to make it out of the cave alone. Or does she? The sequel, The Descent 2, also offers up an excellent dose of lady power, but with a less pleasant outcome, and more dudes.
9. Ruby – The Hills Have Eyes
Though the mutants, or “Hill people,” are the bad guys in The Hills Have Eyes, they’re humanized in the form of Ruby, a teenager who doesn’t necessarily agree with the lot in life that she’s been dealt. Along with her grandfather, Fred, Ruby tries to keep a passing family, The Carters, safe from the rest of the Hill people. This includes Ruby’s parents, Jupiter and Mama, and her brothers, Mars, Pluto, and Mercury, all of whom are cannibals.
It’s clearly pretty hard to be the only sane ones in your family, and after Fred is murdered, Ruby is the Carters’ only hope. After her family commits a rape, a few deaths, and kidnaps a baby, Ruby rescues the infant and unleashes a snake on her brother, allowing the baby’s father to take his revenge. The movie is so violent that it was initially rated X, and is yet another horror movie that was remade in the early aughts. The remake’s ending is different and Ruby is even more badass, this time sacrificing herself to kill her brother.
8. Needy – Jennifer’s Body
The myth of sacrificing a virgin in order to achieve some sort of power or goal (such as immortality) is just one of many that makes no sense in today’s modern world. First of all, the virgins are almost always women, and second, virginity in itself is a ridiculous social construct. So feminist screenwriter Diablo Cody wrote Jennifer’s Body, a dark comedy/horror that proposed what might happen if the ritual was performed using a sexually active high school cheerleader.
After the title character becomes a man-eating demon, her best friend, Anita (affectionately known as “Needy,”) leaps into action to figure out how to stop her from devouring every boy in town. As a metaphor for a hypocritical society where teenage girls are hyper-sexualized while being told to remain chaste, the film is satisfactory, though not without its flaws (it’s hard to say the girl-on-girl make out scene isn’t at least partially for the male gaze). It still meets the criteria here though, for while Jennifer is smashing the patriarchy’s conceptions, Needy is killing her possessed pal for the good of humanity.
7. Clarice Starling – Silence of the Lambs
One of the more interesting takeaways from the celebrated psychological horror Silence of the Lambs is its representations of the various ways in which men demean women. As a young FBI officer-in-training, Clarice Starling is tough — though still obviously rattled — when a prisoner makes a lewd remark and throws semen at her. She’s also on the receiving end of Hannibal Lecter’s “quid pro quo,” where he uses his psychiatric prowess to dissect and belittle her, all while giving her clues to help her solve the case of Buffalo Bill.
While forcing her to examine her past and emotions, Hannibal leads Clarice to draw her own conclusions. Though he sends everyone else in the wrong direction, Clarice winds up finding Buffalo Bill hiding in plain sight, and chases him into his pitch-black basement where, against all odds, she takes down the killer and saves the day. Of course, that ending wouldn’t adequately capture the creep-factor that Hannibal brings to the movie, so we get one final shot of the cannibal informing Clarice of his plans to “have a friend for dinner.”
6. Max – The Final Girls
Modern horror films are often humorously meta, and it doesn’t get more meta than a movie about a girl who is actually transported into the slasher flick that made her (now-deceased) mom a famous scream queen. On the third anniversary of said mother’s death, Max attends a screening of the film within a film, Camp Bloodbath. When a fire breaks out in the theater, she and her friends end up inside the movie, and must figure out how to survive. For Max, this is especially difficult, as she becomes obsessed with saving her mom’s character, Nancy, in order to hold onto her likeness a bit longer.
From the beginning of The Final Girls, Max is a take-charge girl, slicing through the screen in order to escape the fire, but this applies in turn to most of the girls, as the movie completely makes fun of and subverts every trope while the modern teenagers recognize the ridiculousness of the ’80s B-movie horror genre. Max refuses to let og of her dream of bringing her “mother” back with her to 2015, until Nancy sacrifices herself so Max can be the final girl; then she beheads Billy. As a whole, the film shows women refusing to accept their place as “sluts” or “shy girls,” and allows them all to play their part as heroine.
5. Laurie Strode – Halloween H20: 20 Years Later
The Halloween series is, without a doubt, a controversial one. After the original two films, which took place in the same night, the third was entirely unrelated, and the fourth through sixth, though they feature Michael Myers, are completely ignored when our heroine, Laurie, returns in the seventh installment, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later. Regardless, H20 is regarded more highly than the now-retconned predecessors, with OG final girl and scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis at the helm once more.
It’s 1998 and Michael is up to his old tricks again — upon discovering the existence of his nephew, John (played by late-’90s teen heartthrob Josh Hartnett), he starts killing off his friends, and eventually comes face to face with his sister once again. After Michael kills her boyfriend, Will, Laurie sends her kid and his girlfriend to safety, then proceeds to go full-on badass, shedding her fear and stabbing him over and over again. In order to confirm he’s actually dead once and for all, Laurie steals the vehicle with his corpse, throws him from it, tries to run him over, and then beheads him. This epic display of feminine domination would have been perfect, were it not for the terrible truth that comes with the following film, Halloween: Resurrection. Maybe we can just pretend that one never happened…
4. Eli – Let The Right One In
The acclaimed Swedish horror film Let the Right One In took a very different approach to the vampire subgenre. Instead of a mysterious evil man luring women to his estate, the only bloodsucker we meet is Eli, who appears to simply be a shy, pale preteen girl. She forms a fast friendship with Oskar, a boy who is often tormented at school. She teaches him how to stand up for himself, while keeping her secret. Of course, she still has to eat, and her human caretaker, an older man, tries to help her discreetly, but she ends up killing a number of the local townspeople when he fails to get her blood.
Though she isn’t precisely a girl, Eli does represent a strong female in many ways. Oskar falls for her, and she cares for him, but also wants to protect him. In one of the final scenes, Oskar is lured to the school swimming pool by bullies, and Eli comes to his rescue. She swoops in, killing all but one of the boys. The idea of right vs. wrong or good vs. evil is meant to be challenged in this film, and Eli represents both the hero and the villain of her story.
3. Alice – Resident Evil
While many of the heroines on this list have survived multiple movies, no one has gone through quite as much as Alice of the Resident Evil series. In the original movie, Alice is an amnesiac operative who basically has no idea what’s going on until she and her comrades begin to discover what they’re up against: the evil Umbrella Corporation, the Red Queen, and a horde of zombies. Suffice it to say, Alice has to learn on the job what skills lay dormant in her, and she grows more and more powerful throughout the series’ run.
It’s hard to find just one moment that makes Alice a top contender on this list. She suffers from multiple bouts of amnesia, escapes the Hive, is experimented on, given super human powers (and later stripped of them), cloned, murdered, injected, and captured. Yet somehow, Alice always seems to be the answer: her blood is the cure to the T-virus that caused the zombie outbreak, and a combination of science and experience has made her the ultimate fighting machine. It’s yet to be seen whether or not Alice will prevail in Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, but it’s safe bet that she’ll come out on top.
2. Selena – 28 Days Later
After its establishing opening scene, during which the audience sees a virus with zombie-like effects released, 28 Days Later follows Jim, a young man who wakes up from a coma to discover an infected London. Seeing the world through the eyes of a white male isn’t exactly revolutionary, but the film quickly subverts the common “male hero, female victim” trope when Jim meets Selena. She and Mark are fellow survivors who explain the brave new world to him, and show him how to get by.
Selena quickly reveals herself to be the badass of the group when they accompany Jim to find out if his parents are still alive. After discovering their bodies, zombies break through the front window and Mark is bitten, then swiftly killed by Selena. Staying alive is her number one priority, and she doesn’t let her emotions get in the way. Though she later softens a bit and falls for Jim, she remains the heroine of the flick, even potentially sacrificing her own life for Hannah, a teenage girl she hardly knew. And the best part? Jim learns everything he knows from her, and doesn’t have a problem being the Robin to her Batman.
1. Ripley – Aliens
While it’s always hard to pick the toughest badass of them all, Ellen Ripley is a pretty safe bet. After all, Alien is one of the first sci-fi films to truly challenge gender roles, and Ripley is considered one of the most important female characters in cinematic history. Portrayed by the impeccable Sigourney Weaver in her most career-defining role, Ripley, though originally second-in-command, quickly takes over as the leader of Nostromo’s crew as an alien being wreaks havoc on her shipmates.
Ripley is everything a female lead should be: she’s strong, not sexualized, and every bit as tough and powerful as her fellow men– if not more so. There are many moments that make her deserving of the top spot on this list, but arguably the most impactful comes in the second film of the franchise, Aliens. Ripley encounters the queen alien and destroys her eggs, which sets the queen off. They think they’re safe after a subsequent explosion, but the queen survives, and Ripley must don a power loader suit and get rid of her once and for all. It’s going to be pretty incredible to see Ripley once again show off her stuff if/when Alien 5 comes to fruition.
Which horror movie heroines stand out from the pack to you? Let us know in the comments!