When I first sat down to write this post, my original introduction read as follows:
“Horror fans may have recognized the many familiar scenes present in the 2018 film The Strangers: Prey at Night. For me, these easter eggs were a welcome treat, paying tribute to the the history of the genre I love, while also displaying how far we have come in our depiction of horror characters. In one climatic scene Kinsey, the main character, finds herself in the bed of a truck being chased by the killer, this recalls a very similar scene from one of my favorite horror movies, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The scenes might be similar, but the characters placed into them couldn’t be more different.”
I wrote this introduction before sitting down to rewatch each film; after revisiting them, I can no longer write the article I had planned to write., This is because I discovered that I had gravely misremembered The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
I have always thought of Sally, the main character in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as an example of a weak woman character. When I think about the film, I remember her screaming, her terror, her ineffective attempts to run. I rewatched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with the intention of writing down all the reasons Sally was a weak, regressive character for women in horror. What I found when I watched the film, looking specifically for Sally’s flaws, was that there wasn’t actually much wrong with her character at all.
Sally spends the first half of the film blending in with her friends. At first, it was hard to even concentrate on Sally in order to take notes, because she seemed so inconsequential. However, when we get to the famously drawn-out climax of the film, all eyes are on Sally. During this time Sally does scream and she does run, but she also fights. In her attempt to escape the Sawyer family she jumps through a window (twice!) to gain her freedom. That is some strong, badass, survival instinct that deserves some credit. Even as the family overpowers Sally, forcing her into a chair at their dinner table, she continues to struggle and fight against them.
Some of Hooper’s films have been guilty of creating frustratingly ineffective final girls, notability his tribute to the art of standing and screaming for long periods of time in the 1981 film The Funhouse, but I was wrong to put Sally in that category. Sally never allows herself to relax into the role of a passive victim during the entire 30-minute climax. So then what is the primary difference between her and Kinsey, the final girl of The Strangers: Prey at Night? The answer to that question can be found throughout both films, but is perfectly demonstrated in the truck bed scenes from each film.
In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Sally, while fleeing from Leatherface, forces a pickup truck to stop for her by placing her body in front of the truck — the driver has to choose between stopping or hitting her. As with her willingness to jump through windows, this act shows Sally’s determination to survive even at a risk to her body. She struggles to climb into the bed of the car. When she finally makes it into the bed, Sally clutches the side of the car while laughing in hysterics. The truck drives her away from her tormentor, who is still very much alive and active as the distance grows between them. Sally is not able to stop Leatherface, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t strength in her ability to just survive.
In The Strangers: Prey at Night, Kinsey doesn’t have to put herself in harm’s way to stop the truck that eventually carries her to safety. She smoothly climbs into the bed of the truck. However, in this film the truck isn’t what puts distance between Kinsey and the Man in the Mask. The Man in the Mask attempts to climb into the truck. Kinsey grabs a bat laying in the truck and hits the Man in the Mask with it hard in the head, leaving him behind on the road, possibly killing him.
In The Strangers: Prey at Night we see the final girl take her fate into her own hands through a violent action she chooses to commit. The last shot of the Man in the Mask lying motionless on the pavement with a bloodied head makes the audience feel as if Kinsey was the one who triumphed in the end, despite her physical and emotional injuries. Sally, on the other hand, does not get to triumph. It is Leatherface, dancing in the sunrise with his chainsaw, who appears victorious. However, the difference between these two final girls is not in the strength of each character. Instead, it is in the tools provided by each movie’s circumstances. Sally may come off as weak because she was never given anything powerful to wield against her tormentors. The Sawyer family had chainsaws and hammers while she only had the strength of her body to rely on. Kinsey, on the other hand, is given several tools throughout her ordeal, including the bat, a gun, and a lighter.
Kinsey and Sally are more similar than different in many ways, but the biggest similarity is the prolonged terror they both experience. Sally has her famous scene of fear at the Sawyer family’s dinner table. She is strapped down and unable to escape as the audience is treated to an extreme close up of her eye rolling in terror. A similar scene happens when Sally is in the truck belonging to Drayton, another member of the Sawyer family. Drayton pinches and pokes her as she struggles and shrieks. What is important about these scenes is how they seem to go on just a bit too long. Her pain and fear are dragged out for longer than the audience feels comfortable. There is a scene that creates this same discomfort in The Strangers: Prey at Night. Kinsey is crawling across a bridge, terrified and in pain from her injuries, trying to escape a burning truck that is inching towards her.
Carol Clover popularized the idea of, and theories surrounding, final girls in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chain Saws. She theorized that horror relies on female characters because the primary emotions of horror–fear, terror, and even sadness–are thought to be feminine emotions that are not appropriate for men to express. Because of this, horror relies on the female body to show the emotions of the film. However, these women characters become stand-ins for a male hero and therefore are often removed from their femininity. They often dress in a masculine or gender-neutral way. Additionally, they are usually less sexual than their other women counterparts. We can see that Sally was dressed much more conservatively, sporting long pants and a loose fitting tank top, than her friend Pam, who is killed early on in the film while wearing short shorts and a tight halter top.
Keeping my quick rundown of some of Carol’s theories in mind, I think what turned out to be the biggest difference between the two films is not found between Kinsey and Sally, but is instead found between the men of each film. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, very little screen time is given to Sally’s male companions’ fear. At the beginning of the film, it doesn’t feel as though there is a main character. By the end, it is narrowed down to one woman whose fear the audience can focus on. The narration at the beginning of the film sets Franklin up to be a main character alongside Sally, but he isn’t even given time to comprehend his death. In The Strangers: Prey at Night, Kinsey’s dad and brother cry, show terror, and get a proportionate amount of screen time despite Kinsey being set up as the main character from the beginning. Kinsey’s brother getting to cry over his mother’s death early in the film seemed like an especially unique moment to me. This shift is a key to progress in the final girl trope. If we allow the men in horror films to show so-called “feminine” emotions, then the women of horror no longer have to hold the burden of being the sole conveyors of these emotions. No longer having to be stand-in men with emotions means that the characters we see as strong women of horror can become more well-rounded and diverse. I love the final girls of horror history, but I am excited to see more feminine final girls in our horror future.