Horror

BIPOC Final Girls in Recent Horror Fic

Anne Mai Yee Jansen

Contributor

Anne Mai Yee Jansen is a literature and ethnic studies professor and a lifelong story addict. She exists on a steady diet of books and hot chocolate, with a heaping side of travel whenever possible. Originally hailing from the sun and sandstone of southern California, she currently resides with her partner, offspring, and feline companion in the sleepy mountains of western North Carolina.

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You’re probably familiar with the idea that BIPOC characters are the first to die in horror films. In fact, this is such a longstanding and prevalent part of horror that it continues to be studied to this day. Just take a look at Robin Means Coleman and Mark Harris’ book The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema from Fodder to Oscar.

But what happens when you consider this racist tendency alongside the Final Girl trope? See, Final Girls are the last characters standing in whatever horror story they’re in. So if you have a BIPOC Final Girl, there’s an inherent tension between her survival and the tired tendency of killing off all the BIPOC folx in a work of horror. This is where things get interesting.

Let’s pause to really consider the Final Girl, then. In his essay explaining the Final Girl trope in horror films, Alex Abad-Santos explains that “a Final Girl’s life is nothing more than an equation that involves her hair color, how many nude scenes she has, and her personality. And further, a Final Girl’s formulaic survival often becomes as meaningless as the deaths that happen all around her.” In other words, the original trope was pretty flat. (To be fair, Abad-Santos goes on to discuss how this trope has changed in the past couple of decades as the horror genre has become more self-aware.)

Where race is concerned, feminist film critic Joan Amenn points out that the “majority of the Final Girls are CIS gender, white, and from a primarily middle-class background.” With that in mind, a BIPOC Final Girl character bumps up against the whole black-guy-dies-first thing, creating some very necessary dissonance around these tropes and pushing them to keep up with the times.

In that vein, an interesting recent trend that has influenced Final Girls is the genre mash-up. Since we’re seeing all kinds of mash-ups that bring genres like horror into contact with other genres and their conventions, the Final Girl is also evolving. She used to exist solely within the confines of the slasher, a particularly bloody subset of horror that often centered on a serial killer. But I’d argue that Final Girls can increasingly be found outside of these narrow limits.

There are some slashers on this list, but there are also weird westerns, Gothic novels, and thrillers. The Final Girl is evolving, y’all, and she’s even more powerful because of it. So take a look at these genre-defying Final Girls. They’re strong, intelligent, rebellious, and so awesome to behold!

The Black Girl Survives This One book cover

The Black Girl Survives in This One: Horror Stories edited by Desiree S. Evans, Saraciea J. Fennell, and Tananarive Due

Many stories, many Final Girls. As the title suggests, these YA stories all feature Black girls who survive the horrific tales in which they feature. In essence, it’s a book built entirely around Black Final Girls, and it’s chock full of stories by renowned and fresh voices alike. As the great Tananarive Due writes of Black women in the foreword to this impressive and important collection, “We get to be the heroines, and we get to survive. Cultural value is reflected in the arts, and the Black women in this anthology are asserting that we matter.”

My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones book cover

The Indian Lake trilogy by Stephen Graham Jones

Jade Daniels is one of the toughest finals girls I’ve ever encountered, and she’s my absolute favorite of them all. She’ll leave you cheering and crying in equal measure. Jones’ trilogy spans nearly a decade of Jade’s life, and each time you catch up with her, she’s even tougher and smarter. It’s such an amazing reading experience to watch her come into her own over the course of three incredible novels. From high school to prison and into adulthood, Jade’s character gets more complex and more intense with each installment. I don’t want to give anything away, so suffice it to say that following her journey from a high school outcast grappling with some serious abuse to a chain-smoking teacher hell-bent on protecting her wards is surprisingly moving (and astoundingly bloody).

She is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran book cover

She is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran

Jade Nguyen’s just trying to earn enough money to pay for her first year of college, but it turns out that helping her estranged father renovate a crumbling colonial manor in a remote part of Vietnam might be more trouble than it’s worth. The house is multiply haunted, and there’s so much viscerally disturbing insect activity that it’s a wonder she didn’t run screaming after the first few nights. But she wouldn’t be a Final Girl if she did that, would she? Instead, Jade stays to the bitter end and digs deep for that Final Girl resourcefulness to survive the culmination of centuries of colonial violence.

Jackal by Erin E. Adams book cover

Jackal by Erin E. Adams

As if growing up in a small town rife with racism wasn’t traumatic enough, as a teen Liz Rocher somehow managed to escape the gruesome fate suffered by the only other Black girl in her high school. Now she has to return to the hometown she left behind, and another young Black girl goes missing in the woods. Liz is determined to save her, but the legacy of violence she uncovers as she chases the girl’s trail goes beyond anything she could ever have imagined. What happens when this erstwhile Final Girl is forced to revisit the scene of the crime is profoundly relevant in the context of contemporary racism.

Lone Women by Victor LaValle book cover

Lone Women by Victor LaValle

I don’t typically think of weird Westerns as a place for Final Girls to crop up, but Adelaide Henry sure fits the bill. She’s on the run from her past, and she’s dragging a ridiculously heavy steamer trunk containing her darkest secret along for the ride. If you’re inclined to think the hinterlands of Montana in the early 20th century don’t offer enough people to produce a Final Girl, LaValle’s climactic bloodbath will change your mind. Adelaide gets into all kinds of trouble in the extremely remote and frozen landscape, and her Final Girl survival instincts make her one of the most memorable Final Girls I’ve yet to encounter.

You're Not Supposed to Die Tonight by Kalynn Bayron book cover

You’re Not Supposed to Die Tonight by Kalynn Bayron

This clever YA novel engages the Final Girl trope head-on. Charity doesn’t have the best home life, so her summer job at Camp Mirror Lake offers a respite from her daily grind. Camp Mirror Lake was the filming location for a classic slasher, so their gig is offering simulations of the bloodshed…and Charity has finally worked her way into the starring role. You guessed it: she plays the Final Girl. Too bad everything goes wrong one week, and what began as a summer job turns into a full-fledged horror story. It’s an interesting meta-Final Girl tale, that’s for sure!

Dead Girls Walking by Sami Ellis book cover

Dead Girls Walking by Sami Ellis

Dead Girls Walking pairs with You’re Not Supposed to Die Tonight in really fascinating ways. It’s another YA horror novel set at a camp, but this one offers a drastically different premise. Temple Baker’s dad is a serial killer who confessed to killing her mom while on death row. She’s had to come to terms with being a serial killer’s daughter, but his latest confession prompts her to investigate, only to discover the site of her father’s crimes has been transformed into a camp for queer Black youth who love horror. Temple happens to fit the bill, so she manages to secure a spot on the staff just as the murders begin. This one’s definitely a slasher, and Temple pushes Final Girlness into entirely new places.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia book cover

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Rebellious socialite Noemí Taboada is an unlikely Final Girl. It’s interesting to think of a Final Girl outside of the slasher setting, but Mexican Gothic has all the requisite elements: a history of dead girls, a nefarious threat, and (spoiler alert) a climax that most of the characters don’t survive. It may not be your conventional Final Girl setup, but I love how the Final Girl framework highlights Noemí’s scrappiness and the ability of someone who’s chronically underestimated to survive the most unimaginable horrors. The fact that those horrors are inextricably linked to misogyny and colonialism only adds to this Final Girl’s badassery.

There's No Way I'd Die First by Lisa Springer book cover

There’s No Way I’d Die First by Lisa Springer

Darkly comedic, There’s No Way I’d Die First starts out with a party hosted by Noelle Layne, a wealthy Black teen at a private school who’s determined to garnish enough interest in her new podcast. Since she’s already been running a horror film club, she figures Halloween is a fantastic time to throw a self-promotional party. But the creepy clown she hires turns out to be a real-life slasher and chaos reigns as she and her elite guest list fight for their lives. The book grapples with issues of race and class as much as it tangles with the Final Girl trope, and the result is a very thoughtful and well-executed (pun intended) read.

Not Done Yet? There’s Always Another Final Girl.

You can learn more about Final Girls in horror in this essay on who is typically portrayed as a Final Girl. If you want to meet more Final Girls, mine this list of slasher novels for glimpses of these resilient characters. Or for anyone looking to cast a wider net, claw your way through the titles on this list of chilling new horror novels.