Scream’s lasting legacy is its final girls

Scream VI’s core four friends. | Philippe Bossé

Live fast, die young, final girls don’t do it well.

There are some light spoilers for Scream VI in this article

The only thing Scream movies love more than painstakingly explaining the rules of the horror genre is showing you how it breaks them. One main killer who’s invariably a dude, the taboo against sex and drugs, “I’ll be right back” as the quickest route to certain doom — these tropes don’t always apply to Scream.

Over the 27 years of the franchise’s existence, though, there’s been one rule it continually loves to break: In Scream, anyone can be a “final girl.” This might be the slasher series’ lasting legacy.

The final girl — usually brunette, chaste, sober, and always solo — is as crucial to horror movies as the horror itself. She’s the last one standing, the survivor, the good person who defeats evil. She’s who the audience identifies with and roots for at the very end. If there’s no final girl, there’s no tension. If there’s no tension, then what’s the point of a slasher movie? Even more importantly, if there’s no final girl, there’s no sequel.

A final girl needs to live to make everyone else’s deaths matter. Doesn’t she?

The original Scream’s audacious move wasn’t to eliminate the final girl, but rather give us the possibility that anyone can be that girl. The final girl didn’t have to be the sole survivor. The final girl didn’t even have to be a girl. The final girl, as the first Scream posits, could be four people. In adding all these wrinkles to the tried-and-true formula, Scream managed to give us something different even while defining and redefining the hard-and-fast genre laws that its predecessors couldn’t break out of.

Philippe Bossé
Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) is mean. I like her. I’m glad she’s lived this song.

Scream VI, released in theaters on Friday, continues Scream’s final girl amendment. The core friends from Scream 5 are back, as are Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and Scream 4 fan favorite Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere). With all these final girls, sometimes Scream VI feels more like a family reunion than a slasher. Depending on where you stand, that could undermine the tension — or be one of the most daring things about the movie.

Scream fractured the final girl

Scream’s characters live in a world where horror movies (slashers in particular) exist, as do the attendant themes and tropes. The characters are told over and over that no one who has sex lives and anyone who drinks and does drugs dies. Same goes for anyone stupid enough to go anywhere alone. And at the end, the girl — it’s always a girl — who doesn’t break any of these rules will survive and kill the killer.

This is the most important trope in all of horrordom; from Halloween’s Laurie Strode to Alien’s Ellen Ripley, from Nightmare on Elm Street’s Nancy Thompson to Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Sally Hardesty, you need to have a final girl.

Final girls survive. Everyone else dies. Scream points this pattern out to skewer it.

While the final girl can represent an empowering feminist character, the purity checklist to be one is extremely narrow. And once you start examining it, as the Scream franchise invites you to do, the idea that well-behaved, sober, virgin women are the only people that survive horror movies isn’t as empowering as it seems. Yet, somehow, there’s an entire genre that’s obsessed with that notion! An entire genre that’s often touted as subversive and more dangerous than mainstream cinema but is, at its core, pretty puritanical!

What if the final girl is kinda bullshit?

Audiences learned that pretty quickly — in the first 15 minutes of the 1996 original — as they watched Drew Barrymore’s Casey Becker bite the dust. Barrymore, the biggest star attached to the movie, was the face of the film. It was unheard of to kill your biggest star in the opening scene, and Casey, on paper, was supposed to be the final girl. Instead, she’s Ghostface’s — a serial murderer who’s obsessed with scary movies and phone calls — first kill.

The movie quickly establishes that Casey was a bait and switch for newcomer Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott.

Philippe Bossé
Sam and Tara from Scream V and Scream VI.

Sidney isn’t as helpless, saintly, or coy as final girls tend to be. In the movie, Sidney talks about escalating her relationship with Billy (Skeet Ulrich), eventually has sex with him (not knowing he’s Ghostface), finds time to punch Gale Weathers in the face, and kills not only Billy but his best friend and partner in crime Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard).

Sidney also isn’t the only one who survives.

Gale, the mean local news reporter, makes it to the end too, as does her love interest Deputy Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette), a clumsy and hapless inversion of the genre’s traditional cop saviors. And so too does the encyclopedic Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy), Sidney’s friend who knows everything about slasher movies.

These characters’ survival in the movie reflects and critiques the genre’s clumsiest tropes about purity, about personality, about age, and about gender. Letting characters who don’t fit the final girl mold live is a way to expose how limiting the final girl trope is. The idea that anyone can make it to the end of a Scream movie is more subversive compared to a litany of horror films that don’t allow it.

Why shouldn’t a cynical journalist be able to survive a slasher movie? Just because she’s unpleasant? What if a final girl didn’t need a cop to save her? Why couldn’t she be the one to save him? What would happen if nerds survive?

The other side of that coin, then, is that anyone could die. And any of those deaths could be seen as a tragedy.

Take Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan), from the first film. Tatum — a smart, bitchy, sarcastic feminist — has the best lines and gets the most laughs in the movie. She’s constantly pointing out how obviously sexist or idiotic the other characters are being. She doesn’t break any more of the final girl rules than Sidney does, yet she gets one of the more gruesome deaths — smushing via pet flap — in the franchise.

But as McGowan points out in interviews and how beloved Tatum is among fans, she isn’t simply a throwaway character. Despite being the movie’s bombshell, she isn’t portrayed as a helpless victim or a clueless bimbo. She has Ghostface on the ropes, and even makes a snarky, self-aware quip about wanting to be in the sequel. If Scream establishes that the horror genre usually doesn’t let girls like Tatum live, it’s even more maddening that she doesn’t make it out alive in the one movie that bends the rules enough to allow her.

Even if anyone can be the final girl in Scream, everyone can also be a victim.

Scream VI could use more suspense

Scream 5 and VI continue Scream’s final girl fracturing by incorporating legacy characters. Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), the heroine of both movies, is the daughter of Billy (Ulrich), one of the killers in the first movie. Sam’s background creates the possibility that she could actually be both the final girl and the villain. We aren’t sure how reliable and trustworthy our protagonist is.

And that dynamic is played up when Sam meets the franchise’s original trio of survivors her father terrorized — Sidney, Gale, and Dewey — in the fifth movie. (Campbell did not return for Scream VI because of a pay dispute.)

Sam is joined by her sister Tara (Jenna Ortega), as well as Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding) Meeks-Martin, the twin niece and nephew of the original movie’s Randy Meeks.

There’s a similarity between the franchise’s new batch of finals and the originals.

Tara, like Sidney, is isolated from her family (Sam, mostly) and is the center of her friend group — a friend group that includes murderers.

Mindy, like Randy, is a student of horror films and knows the rules of how horror films play out. Chad presents as a jock like Dewey presents as a cop, but ends up being a little more helpless than helpful in the end. And in the sixth movie, Chad, in Dewey-like fashion, starts to develop feelings for Tara.

Scream VI takes place in New York City (a New York City that was filmed in Canada) at a fictional college, not unlike Scream 2. Ghostface has followed Sam, Tara, and their friends to the Big Apple. As Ghostface racks up more kills, old characters start turning up. Gale is living on the Upper West Side, and checks in, hoping to get a scoop. Kirby, who is now working for the FBI, specifically on Ghostface killings, has also joined the fray.

Philippe Bossé
There are so many people in this movie. How many do you think die?

There comes a point in Scream VI that begins to feel more like a Fast and Furious movie than a slasher. The stabbings become more egregious, as do the feats of survival. There’s a lot of talking about found family and how they’re all in this together. I don’t know what a gaggle of final girls is called, but whatever it is (A clique? A squad? A core four? A support group?) Scream VI is all in.

If there’s one critique I have, it’s that so many survivors with long histories take away from the unpredictability and stakes that Scream established with characters like Tatum or fan favorites like Scream 2’s Cici Cooper (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Scream 3’s Jennifer Jolie (Parker Posey). While there’s that feeling that anyone could be a final girl, it doesn’t firmly establish that anyone could die, mainly due to all of the crisscrossing connections they have with the legacy of the franchise.

If no one dies, do the final girls even matter? And does Scream care anymore?

Given Scream VI’s record-setting box office success, though, it sure seems as though the franchise has found a winning formula. That’s important, especially at a time when the franchise seems to be passing the torch to the new cast. The legacy remains intact. Scream’s new version of its original final girls are here to stay — at least until Scream 7.

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