Growing up, I always loved Final Girls. Not that I called them that yet—I was still a few years away from reading Carol Clover’s landmark Men, Women, and Chainsaws. But I already intuitively understood what so many of us did: there are the girls that survive horror films and the girls that don’t.
Laurie Strode in Halloween and Sidney Prescott in Scream were my longtime favorites. Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street as well. Ellen Ripley in Alien and Aliens practically went without saying. The Final Girls in the Friday the 13th series were always up for an epic climactic battle too. But even as I reveled in the many powerful characters of the genre, two female protagonists in a pair of well-loved horror classics particularly irked me: Barbra in Night of the Living Dead and Wendy in The Shining. They certainly didn’t act like the strong characters I loved, the ones who could discover the slaughtered bodies of their friends and still fend off the killer in the last reel. Instead, Wendy and Barbra expressed their fears in a way that made me uncomfortable. Their emotions were messy. Get it together, I’d think every time I watched the films, rolling my eyes whenever they started to unravel on the screen.
When I was a teenager, I went to a midnight theater production of Night of the Living Dead. It was played for macabre laughs, and at the time, I remember loving it. But the one thing that sticks with me after all these years is the depiction of Barbra. The actress playing the character did basically one thing for the bulk of the show: she quivered melodramatically on a couch. Curled up in a ball, her eyes wide, she quivered and shook and convulsed. For about ninety minutes. This was, I might add, much to the delight of the audience. After all, Barbra’s ineffectiveness was something people always seemed to discuss whenever you watched Night on a grainy VHS or a poorly transferred DVD. This raucous play was simply underscoring the obvious.
That night, I laughed too, because I told myself I’d never be like Barbra. If zombies invaded, I’d fight back. But that’s what’s so odd about memory: rewatch the film, and you’ll see there are numerous times that Barbra does indeed put up a good fight. In the opening scene, she escapes the first zombie in the cemetery, gets to the car, and releases the emergency brake, which helps her roll down the hill away from danger. When the car crashes—because let’s face it, adrenaline, the undead, and a Pontiac without a running engine are a terrible combination—she flees barefoot on concrete to the relative safety of the farmhouse. And what’s the first thing she does once she’s inside? She finds a knife. Not a bad start for a supposedly frail character.
The middle of the film does find Barbra mostly incapacitated, and yes, she does spend those scenes sitting on a couch. What’s interesting, though, is that she doesn’t quiver much. For the most part, she sits perfectly still. She’s clearly in shock, and actress Judith O’Dea does a remarkable job of conveying this anguish. In fact, it’s one of the more realistic depictions of numbed trauma in horror, even though the performance rarely gets its due.
Wendy Torrance in The Shining has long had the same reputation as Barbra. Upon the film’s release, critics either loathed Shelley Duvall in the film, or as she described in an interview with Robert Ebert, they simply overlooked her altogether. She was nominated for a Razzie. Stephen King himself has expressed his disdain for the performance, calling her “a screaming dishrag.” Over the ensuing years, word’s gotten out about the horrors director Stanley Kubrick subjected Duvall to on the set. The brutal yearlong shoot involved countless retakes and relentless bullying until Duvall’s hair was literally falling out.
But even without that behind-the-scenes knowledge, it’s surprising to think how much ire her performance inspired, especially considering her character manages to save herself and her son against truly insurmountable odds. Like Barbra, Wendy is also one of the more honest portrayals of trauma I’ve seen on film, in particular the trauma of a domestic abuse victim. Her excuse-making for Jack’s abysmal behavior, her desperate attempts to keep her crumbling family together, her refusal to kill him when she initially has the chance—none of these reactions are what we usually see in a horror movie, because the villain tends to be a stranger, someone the character’s never met before. The audience’s first instinct might be to neutralize the threat, but when the threat is someone you love, it’s not that simple. A monster coming from within your family is always more terrifying than the one from outside of it.
Most of us want to believe that we’ll be the survivor in a horror movie, that we’ll keep our head and battle against cataclysmic forces. We’ll do what needs to be done, because of course, we will. That’s how the vast majority of us want to see ourselves: as right and decent and reliable.
Here’s the thing though: because of the pandemic, we’ve now all lived through an apocalyptic event. And guess what? It hasn’t been a lot of fun, and most of us aren’t very good at it. After the collective trauma we’ve endured, we’re tired, we’re erratic, we’re numb. We’re a lot like Wendy and Barbra.
Still, in spite of their reputations, neither Wendy nor Barbra fare all that badly in the end. In the finale of Night, when the dead are invading the farmhouse, Barbra at last breaks through her shock and fends off the hungry ghouls at the door, even saving Mrs. Cooper’s life in the process. (It’s not Barbra’s fault that Mrs. Cooper only survives another minute or two before little Karen Cooper hacks her mother to death with a trowel in the basement.)
And yes, Barbra does ultimately get wrenched away into a crowd of zombies, but then again, none of our major characters survive the final credits. It’s a nihilistic film without a doubt, but that’s hardly Barbra’s fault.
Wendy is even more proactive. After Jack’s initial violent attack in the Overlook, she drags her unconscious husband through the vast hotel corridors and locks him in the pantry—bearing in mind that he’s about twice her size and she’s strung out from having to subdue her spouse in the first place. Sure, Jack eventually breaks out, but it’s not Wendy’s fault that the ghosts unlock the damn pantry door (which I always felt was a cheap move). Then as Danny goes into a catatonic state and Jack revs up his violence, Wendy escapes once again, starts up the snowcat, and gets herself and her son out through a snowstorm to freedom, all while carrying a pretty impressive knife. Like Barbra, Wendy’s notoriety as a weak, unreliable character is hardly a fair one. It’s simply that the two of them don’t fight back without breaking a sweat. They suffer, and they suffer greatly.
Just like the rest of us.
Despite everything they do to survive, Barbra and Wendy rarely make any lists for favorite characters in horror. They’re not treated as aspirational. That’s because nobody wants to be the so-called weak link in a horror movie, just like nobody wants to be the weak link in life. Maybe it’s because we’re collectively raised to mistrust anyone we see as too volatile or unhelpful.
Women in particular are expected to enthusiastically support others. We live under constant pressure to put everyone else’s needs before our own, the whole world subtly and not-so-subtly reminding us how maybe we shouldn’t have needs at all. And when it comes to putting their own emotions on hold for the greater good, Final Girls tend to satisfy those expectations—they endure the unthinkable and keep on fighting, determined and steely-eyed. Wendy and Barbra, however, don’t make it that simple. They fall apart, and we bear uncomfortable witness to it. They don’t remain strong the way we’ve been taught to, the way any good horror survivor should. By needing help, they’re perceived as too soft, not only by the standards of the genre but by the standards of much of the world. After all, we are living in a time when wearing a mask in public to prevent a deadly disease can earn you the screams and scorn of strangers. Anything that acknowledges our inherent human weaknesses is quick to elicit criticism.
Consequently, this raises a discomfiting question: are we only deemed worthwhile when we’re accommodating the people around us? When we serve some clear-cut purpose to the world? Are Wendy and Barbra so frustrating specifically because they don’t seem useful enough in a time of need?
Now obviously, this isn’t to advocate for anyone to disengage from a sense of community or to be actively unhelpful. We’re most definitely stronger when we’re together, and nothing will improve in the world without people to fight for it. But the constant demand that we must prove our worth when we’re already exhausted seems more than a little untenable. Is it so terrible to take some space and time to grieve? And moreover, would it be so impossible for society to give people that space?
Because as it is, there’s nowhere we can safely express our grief. As I’m writing thist this moment, we’ve lost over five million people in the world to COVID-19, yet it’s almost impossible to process that reality. Instead, it’s just business as usual. We’ve just passed the holiday season when we were all supposed to act cheerful, even though many tables across the country were missing people who belong there, who would still be with us if the last two years had taken a decidedly different—and less apocalyptic—direction.
For a genre all about trauma, Wendy and Barbra are somewhat anomalous. Most horror films don’t allow their characters to seriously cope with grief. Perhaps it’s because mourning isn’t particularly cinematic. Or maybe it’s because we have no patience for those who commit a cardinal sin: that is, admitting that life can be utterly unbearable.
However, if the last few years are any indication, that may be changing. The Babadook, for example, is focused entirely on a mother’s anguish over the loss of her husband and her ambiguous feelings toward motherhood. Dani’s heartbreak over her family’s deaths is at the epicenter of Midsommar. Get Out deals with Chris’s grief and guilt over the childhood loss of his mother. Bit by bit, we’re moving closer to an era where we might indeed find more space for sorrow and circumspection in horror. If only the rest of the world could catch up.
In the meantime, we’ll still be here, characters in our own real-life horror movie, living out a pandemic nightmare one day at a time. And even after all of this, truth be told, I’d still rather be a Final Girl. But if I turn out to be more like Wendy and Barbra—damaged and messy yet somehow still persevering through my grief in the end—I think I can live with that too.