Slash and Burn

Grady Hendrix's "The Final Girl Support Group" tries to critique 1980s slasher movies but its deep cuts are rarely more than flesh wounds.

I was not surprised when HBO Max announced only a week after the publication of Grady Hendrix’s new novel The Final Girl Support Group that it would turn the story of a mad killer picking off the “final girl” survivors of previous slasher rampages into a TV series. The premise is irresistible. Indeed, when I first heard about the book, I made the effort to sit down a read it—a major undertaking with my hectic work schedule and a rambunctious toddler taking up most of my waking hours. The critical acclaim showered on the book had me excited to read Final Girl, and when I finished it, it was … fine.

Final Girl tells the story of Lynette, one of the survivors of a classic 1980s-style massacre, now a paranoid, isolated middle-aged woman holed up in a fortified apartment, terrified of a repeat. She is part of the title support group with the final girls from other slasher events, all of whom are psychologically damaged in various ways. In this world, mad slasher are media events, and each inspired a movie franchise that provides that celebrity and the income that the women rely on.

The story is told entirely in Lynette’s narrow narration, with its insular, perspective. Since she tells the story, you know she survives, which robs the story of most of its tension. Until the last couple of chapters, most of the action happens offstage. As a result, the story is small. Hendrix doesn’t do much with the world he creates. A world populated by celebrity slashers should have ways to comment on the epidemic of incel gun violence, but we never see much of the broader world. Even though it mostly takes place in and around Los Angeles and the movie industry is its background, Hendrix has nothing to say about Hollywood and seems to have done no research into modern media and has less to say about a final girl becoming a movie than Scream 3. He even unironically borrows the in-universe fake Scream movie Stab as his own. Although the story takes place in 2010 (Hendrix started writing the book in 2014 but couldn’t sell it until now), it is deeply rooted in memories of how things used to be in 1985 (Hendrix is old enough that this was his young adult years). The internet is barely a blip, social media no factor, cameras all but forgotten. If not for the occasional presence of smartphones, it could take place at any time in the past half century.

I liked it for what it was, but it’s the kind of horror story that people who rarely read horror stories would imagine that one should be—not very scary, low-stakes, references standing for story. Over a lifetime, I’ve read hundreds of horror novels and thousands of horror stories, and this one was … one of them. Critics who praised its metacommentary and originality are largely critics who haven’t read a horror novel published this century, or who have forgotten the entire genre of Scream-inspired meta-horror. Indeed, Hendrix has also forgotten much of that, or, rather, purposely avoided it.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Hendrix said that he did not research the history of the horror genre (the genre he has written novels in for almost a decade) before writing the book, nor did he watch contemporary horror for fear of having his ideas contaminated. It also meant that he is writing a book based on impressions rather than research, and the lack of deep thought about the “final girl” mythos—and its artificial construction—shows through in the novel.

In the beginning, there was no rule about who, if anyone, would survive a mad killer in a horror film. Early proto-slasher films’ killers attacked both men and women, and as often as not, a mated couple would survive for a semblance of a happy ending. The “final girl” trope in horror movies emerged by accident in the 1970s when both Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre featured psychotic killers picking off a group of teenagers until only one girl remained. Alien helped solidify the idea that one woman survives. For the next half century, horror producers have almost slavishly followed the template, raising the “final girl” from narrative convenience to archetype to immutable law of nature. In the late 1980s, Carol Clover began studying the narrative format academically, publishing an influential journal article in 1987 later expanded into her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender and the Modern Horror Film. She argued that slasher movies ask the audience to identify with the final girl.

Clover’s book revolutionized the horror genre, in its way, by institutionalizing a feminist interpretation of slasher movies in the minds of writers and critics. Within a few years, Kevin Williamson’s revitalization of the slasher genre with Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer seemed to draw heavily on the arguments from Clover’s book, and alongside Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, gave the “final girl” a more active role than the 1970s and 1980s Halloween-style films had done. This, in turn, led modern horror creators to read the superficial feminism of these films backward into earlier exemplars of the genre, yielding a modern myth that mad killer movies are a gender-role discourse in which a toxic male uses a surrogate penis to attempt to penetrate and control women.

The lesser lights of the genre follow that template because the creators are steeped in the arguments and reproduce them in their own work. But that Freudianism by way of simplified feminism wasn’t inevitable, isn’t the result of mythic forces, but was instead the product of mindless copying and deliberate imitation. Consider, for example: The killer in the first Friday the 13th movie was not a man. It was Mrs. Vorhees, Jason’s mother. The killer in the infamous Sleepaway Camp was involuntarily transgender.

For the backstory of his novel, Hendrix follows the plots of the late 20th century slasher movies he draws from slavishly, rarely making any changes except where copyright law demands. But where he does change them, he does so to bring them more in line with Clover’s thesis and the pop-feminism of the “final girl” mythos. Mrs. Vorhees is erased from his version of Friday the 13th, replaced with a predatory male, the future monster’s father. Courtney Cox’s vulture journalist Gail Weathers from Scream gets the axe, too, again replaced with a predatory man. In Hendrix’s world, women are good and men are bad, and women can only become bad if they are corrupted by evil men, fall under a man’s spell, or identify too closely with the power of men. In Rolling Stone, Hendrix even describes his view of women as being mutually supportive in their war with men.

The Final Girl Support Group has too simplistic a view of gender to have anything useful to say beyond reinforcing the popular battle of the sexes motif, but it says it loudly enough to annoy me. I had really high expectations for the novel, and there are glimpses in it of what could have been—flashbacks to the difference between real-life trauma and the glossy sheen of Hollywood murder porn, explorations of how the vampiric predation of Hollywood mirrors that of slashers, the disillusionment of maturity with the perverse pleasures of youth. But, ultimately, The Final Girl Support Group is just a reworking of Scream for former 1980s and 1990s teens who are now middle aged.