Picture it. You’re running down a dark alleyway in a big city. Maybe it’s the dark forest at the edge of a campsite, or a haunted hallway in a creaky old house. Could even be a spaceship – take your pick. A deranged killer with a fun gimmick and a bomb-ass soundtrack is stalking you in the night. He’s already killed all your friends or your colleagues or your boyfriend, maybe even your parents in increasingly creative ways. Maybe all of them if he’s proficient and you have a run time over 90 minutes. You’ve already survived a few close calls with death, and now he’s coming to finish the job (and the movie). But you’re not going to give up without a fight. You are a Final Girl and you’re ready to either kill this monster or take him down with you.
Everyone has their favourite final girl. Maybe you’ll think of Laurie Strode from Halloween, or Ripley from Alien. If you’re a man of culture you might think Sally Hardesty from Texas Chainsaw or Suzy Bannion from Suspiria(the original from 1977; ain’t nothing final girl about Dakota Johnson’s Suzy from the 2018 remake.)
Recognise the formula? Final Girls are a cornerstone of horror. In an industry that usually sees men own the role of protagonist, horror movies from the early 70s saw mostly women take the leading role in everyone’s favourite slasher films. But the term itself is actually relatively new – Carol J. Clover (a legend) was the first to call these lone survivors ‘final girls’ in her rad book Men, Women and Chainsaws (1993). Her description of the final girl is one we all recognise. She is a beacon of pure virginal goodness amongst her peers, and usually figures out what’s happening eons before anyone else becomes clued in. When all of her friends eventually have sex and die (per horror movie LAW), she alone must outsmart the killer and escape. Now, you could write multiple books about how this is sexist or empowering or symbolic or whatever, but that’s not what this weird rambling essay is about. We’re here to give due to a final girl ICON.
If any of these women are your favourites, that’s fine! But you’d be wrong, because the correct answer is obviously Nightmare on Elm Street’s Nancy Thompson – the TRUE QUEEN of the Final Girl circuit.
For anyone who hasn’t heard of horror master Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street(how?) I’ll give you a brief history (there’s eight of these things, so I mean brief). The Nightmare franchise follows the antics of everyone’s favourite gardener-turned-child molester-turned dream demon, Freddy Krueger. Years after his fiery death at the hands of Elm Street’s dedicated PTA, he enters the dreams of the Elm Street’s children while they’re sleeping to take revenge in some admirably creative ways. We’re following basic Matrix rules here – you die in the dream, you’re dead in real life.
So what makes Nancy so unique amongst the long list of teens Freddy slashes his way through?
Let’s start with her first final girl circuit. When we’re first introduced to Nancy (played by actress Heather Langenkamp), she’s wearing a letterman jacket and is hanging on the arm of a fresh-faced, pre-wine bathing Johnny Depp. Immediately you’re thinking this girl is slasher-fodder supreme. But there’s more to Nancy – she’s intelligent and kind-hearted, and when her distant father and alcoholic mother dismiss her fear, she bucks the trope of victimised final girl and chases headfirst after Freddy herself. As Wes Craven himself stated, he wanted a heroine who was a natural leader, one who ‘didn’t trip and fall down, who could fight if she had too.’ She’s the first to figure out how to wake herself up when being chased by Krueger, and the first to realise how he can be pulled into the real world. And after deciding staying awake is for chumps, Nancy pulls a major Home Alone move by straight up decking out the house with exploding lightbulbs and razor wire before pulling Freddy out of her dreams and setting that hoe on fire with a Molotov cocktail. Nancy Thompson isn’t the frightened girl hiding in a closet, or the screaming victim who barely escapes. Unlike many of her counterparts, she actively seeks out her stalker and not only fights, but outsmarts him. Carol J. Clover herself calls her ‘the grittiest final girl.’ By the end of the film, she’s the only one strong enough to realise that the only thing keeping Freddy going is her fear – and she decides she’s not going to be afraid.
Nancy would go on to run the circuit once more in Nightmare 3: Dream Warriors (arguably one of the best of the bunch). After getting over the trauma of the first film, our girl somehow manages to start a doctorate and secure an internship at a Mental Institution helping kids with recurring nightmares. This movie is a real treat, and I don’t want to spoil it, but the Nancy we see in Dream Warriors is ready to dance. Heather Langenkamp would appear in another Nightmaremovie, not as Nancy but as a strange film version of herself, in a wild meta ride that sees Heather and the other cast of the original haunted by their own creation. (It’s very cool, look it up). In conclusion, Nancy Thompson will fuck your shit up, and serve you fierce girl-next-door looks while doing so.