Evolution of the Survivor
By Jeff Hill
Well, we made it through spooky season. Some of us are in mourning, some of us are planning for next year, and some of us are doing what the characters in our favorite slasher movies are always doing on the big screen: just trying to survive.
A few folks are putting up their Christmas trees already (I can’t judge, I’ve had mine up since November 2019), others are enjoying the weather change, the colors on the leaves, the lead-in to Thanksgiving break, and before we know it, the end of the first semester. Personally, I’m just trying my best to get as much done as possible and maintain a semblance of a social life during a pandemic. I’m currently working on outlining my thesis for next semester, which is shaping up to be a slasher movie as a novel. But Dead Week is not just your average story about a serial killer set on a college campus the week before finals as the snow begins to fall. It’s also a biting social commentary on campus rape culture, the divide between Greeks and non-Greeks, the power of believing survivors, the danger of weaponizing cancel culture, the double-edged sword of hashtag movements, the rise and fall and rise again of identity politics, and showing the rays of light and hope in all the darkness and despair. And, because it’s a murder mystery, masks.
So, as homework, I’ve been watching a lot of scary movies. The slasher genre, though dismissed by true film buffs (whatever that term even means in the internet age), is full of lots of truly inspirational stuff. Yeah, there are wild beheadings and colorful curse words and gratuitous nude scenes all over the place. But there are also kick-ass heroes and classic music scores and true tales of overcoming the worst possible scenarios. Plus, it’s kind of fun to watch dumb people say horrible things and then be immediately punished. After all, a horror film is pretty-obviously a work of complete and utter fiction.
But it’s 2021 and we’re no longer into watching Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Leatherface, Jason Voorhees, Jigsaw, Chucky, and Ghostface (among countless others) slash their way through a cast of characters we don’t really like. We want to care about the potential victims. We want to root for the good guys for a change. And, to be completely honest, we want them to win (even if it selfishly ends a potentially lucrative franchise). It doesn’t have to happen in the first one, for those Hollywood types who love to cash in as much as possible (while still leaning towards progressive filmmaking and storytelling). For example, the babysitter in When a Stranger Calls survives to become the hero in the sequel, years later, in the aptly named When a Stranger Calls Back. And if wacky comedienne Carol Kane can do it, anyone can.
Let’s face it. There’s nothing more satisfying in a horror movie than the moment the protagonist fights back. The Strangers is scary, but altogether hard to really invest in because you know, from the opening scene, that it is completely and utterly hopeless. When the sequel hit theaters (remember movie theaters?) about a decade later, the same screenwriter took the scares and made them real when the protagonists decided that escape wasn’t enough. The Strangers: Prey at Night is a superior film because they take their unfortunate circumstances and own them. They don’t just give up and die. They fight back. And (spoiler!) they win. The first Black Christmas may have (debatably) started the sub-genre of the slasher film, but the newest remake of the classic film adds a new twist and shows the girls teaming up, arming themselves, and taking some names as they fight back in what turns out to be a comedic (yet inspiring) turn of events.
With all the recent campus allegations, some national news and some hitting home here in “The Good Life,” the narratives about sexual abuse and violence needs to be reframed. It can’t just be the story of the boogeymen. The stories that matter are of those who fight back. The victims and the survivors. The heroes. If we spotlight the heroes, the villains lose some of their power. And if we spotlight enough of them, maybe we can tip the scales.
The most famous “final girls” have been Laurie Strode from the Halloween series, Nancy Thompson from the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and my personal favorites, the duo of Gale Weathers and Sidney Prescott from the Scream films. The best part about this particular pair is that it, much like the world, they are constantly learning, responding, adapting, and improving. And making fun of themselves along the way. After all, the best trilogies come in fives.
The newest Scream trailer has a lot less jokes and a lot more strength. One scene from said trailer shows the main characters being asked if they are prepared this time. Gale says “For this? Never,” while Sidney replies “I’m Sidney Prescott, of course I have a gun.” The frenemies reunite for yet another entry into what is slowly cementing itself as the best horror series of not only one, but now two generations. The only thing that could solidify it as number one would be if they could somehow talk Jamie Lee Curtis, the reigning scream queen herself, into joining their ranks.
But we can’t go too far with the whole girl power thing. It is, after all, horror. And there are dire consequences for the cause if handled poorly. Promising Young Woman is essentially the anti-slasher film on two levels. On the surface, because it doesn’t actually show any murder, just the build-up to what we as the audience have been trained to think is going to happen. On a much deeper (and possibly unintentional) level, it gives us a heroine who is in fact, quite horrible. Polarizing stories like Gone Girl and Get Out got absolutely nothing on this one. But a few years before this film shocked audiences who weren’t used to Oscar bait taking the form of a horror film, an actual scary movie called M. F. A. did pretty much the exact same thing. Except it’s a lot less artsy (which is ironic, considering the title and the lead’s role as an art student), a lot gorier, and a hell of a lot more in-your-face uncomfortable. Both films work. But whereas M. F. A. has us secretly rooting for the baddie, Promising Young Woman just kind of leaves us all feeling a little bit like we need to take a shower. And maybe call our mom.
But there’s hope.
After all, if Sigourney Weaver can elevate Ellen Ripley from final girl to kickass lead heroine in the Alien franchise and Carrie Fisher can take Leia from Disney Princess to war-time General in the Star Wars saga, science fiction has got it covered. And Ari Aster’s keeping us up at night while he forms, as Twitter would have us calling it, the “Good for Her Cinematic Universe” with offbeat modern masterpieces like Midsommar and Hereditary. And we can’t forget films like The Descent, which successfully showed the world that you absolutely don’t need any men (at all) to make a solid action-horror flick.
Wes Craven gave Nancy the lines that sort of set the tone for an entire generation (and now two, I guess, because aging is a thing). When confronting her literal nightmare in the form of the rapist/murderer/demon Freddy Krueger, she proclaims “I take back every bit of energy I ever gave you. You’re nothing. You’re shit.” And really, when it all comes down to it, isn’t he?
Which brings me back to where we are right now. In this world. In a world where we’re still marching, still voicing, still sharing and listening to stories, and not giving up. Because the creeps out there don’t have anything on us. We’re not afraid of them. And though it’s fun to watch movies and see what happens next, we’re kind of getting sick and tired of getting killed.
And for those of you wondering why a man is writing this and embracing the collective we, it’s simple, really. This is me saying I love horror movies and I love my friends and my community. And as a member of the Greek system, a teacher, an ally, and a former member of the silent majority, I’m going to leverage some of my power and say it as loud as possible:
We’re with you.
(Images courtesy of Scream, (C) Kevin Williamson, Dimension Films, via the New York Post, October, 2021 and Halloween Kills, (C) John Carpenter, Dimension Films, via People Magazine, September, 2021.)