Character Set 1
The Last Girl Scout
For the final girl of countless horror and survival films, making it to the end requires a transformation
by Benedict Singleton
illustration by Alex Solman
‘What do I do? What do I do?’
— Dr. Ryan Stone, Gravity
The last girl scout has no stories to call her own. She is implied constantly around us, frequently gracing our screens; she is the engine of endless plots, carrying the crux of the action. But as of today, she remains unrecognised, the uncredited cameo the only form of her appearance. Things change, though, whether we want them to or not. And as the landscape in which we move becomes progressively more densely textured with artifice, and urgent situations seem to stack ever up, she takes on increasing force, gaining traction, momentum, ferocity, significance. A strange, and in some ways terrible figure — dead-eyed and brilliant, admirable and empty — she is becoming unavoidable.
The first hints of her appear on the cinema screens of the late 20th century. Her most obvious antecedent is the figure Carol J. Clover called the final girl, who represents the last girl scout in prototype form. The final girl finds herself in a danger that has come from nowhere, without warning. It could be an elemental force, an animal, an errant technology; but classically, it is a person, a killer as inscrutable, unresponsive and implacable as the foregoing. The plot is structured as a countdown, its development recorded in a tally of fallen friends, until she is the last one left alive, trapped in the haunted zone between zero and one, and must engage in a final confrontation in which she is hopelessly out-matched. Her survival is all the more surprising, in the world of the film, as she is deliberately pitched as unprepared, untrained and unremarkable: pure civilian.
Letícia Román as Nora Davis, a forerunner to the ‘final girl’, in the 1963 Italian giallo, The Girl Who Knew Too Much
Nonetheless, her status as nothing special follows certain conventions, pioneered by the horror films, Black Christmas and Halloween, and iterated by the less imaginative imitations that have followed in their wake. The final girl is an adult, but still young, just beginning to rehearse the stereotypical obligations of Western grown-ups. She is engaged in dry runs of familial responsibility: she is often the babysitter. She is neither notably attractive, nor especially plain, and is just starting to form relationships with men; yet she is fiercely independent, and — to the exasperation of her flirty best friend, provided for contrast — unwilling to reshape herself to be what they want. So in another way, too, she is portrayed as being between zeros and ones — she is almost always a tomboy, down to a name that sounds unisex: she is a Laurie, a Ripley, a Sydney, a Jo.
Endless re-runs and cover versions of the basic premise have affirmed these conventions, while manipulating the specifics. They trade off modulations of the story’s core parameters: whether the final girl is sexually active; the specifics of their hunter’s psychopathology and its index in the structure of their kills; the location of events and the means of contriving a sufficient degree of isolation, such that, as things turn from bad to worse, there is no possibility of simply engaging the authorities. The final girl evidently offers purchase for certain reactionary tendencies, according to which women are punished for being sexually available, and the final girl’s virginal status is what ensures her survival. More progressive interpretations are equally possible, in which she is unwilling to become the person that those who pursue her want her to be: a blank screen on which men can upload their fantasies, whether they be suitors or psychopaths. At the very least, the final girl is a model of independence. Faced with a maniacal and murderous misogyny, she does not wait to be saved.
The last girl scout is not the final girl, but the figure the final girl must become in order to survive. In the narrative’s later stages, there always comes a point where the final girl, under extreme pressure, must entrust her survival to a certain kind of material resourcefulness. She has to find some way of turning the tables on what endangers her, when she’s outnumbered, outgunned, or otherwise looks to be overwhelmed. With all obvious exit routes eclipsed, she must somehow pull a trapdoor from the air, find a loophole in this claustrophobic logic as the tension continuously ratchets.
The last girl scout is precisely this figure, the one who scans her environment for something she can use. In the most everyday surroundings, the nature and placement of objects around her becomes suggestive of a plan: intelligence dead drops for an amnesiac operative, lane markers under high-beams on a highway in the dark. She assesses the contents of a kitchen drawer or the cupboard under the stairs not as a set of possessions, or even strictly tools, but as equipment, gear, intuitively grasping the most extreme potentials encapsulated in knitting needle, vase, or the conjunction of aerosol can and matches. If she has time — not much, but just enough — her actions sophisticate into a construction montage detailing the creation of traps and decoys: a climbing rope lashed to a chair that’s winched over a bannister to contrive a primitive deadfall; or circuit breakers jammed so she can electrify a door handle with the flex from a lamp, stripped down to bare wire.
Shauna Macdonald as the resourceful Sarah Carter in the 2005 British horror film, The Descent
But the last girl scout is only ever a temporary visitor to the screen. As though extinguished by the execution of her plan, as suddenly as she arrived, she is gone, leaving the final girl to rejoin her family with tearful embraces and nightmares to look forward to. But if the last girl scout exits the stage, where does she go? If anything, she moves sideways, into other films, turning up as another final girl — although she has been sighted far beyond that canon. The rule is simple: she is anywhere where there is an urgent force differential, a disparity in physical strength, requiring a kind of thought — call it cunning — that is watchful, quick, and indirect or oblique; the intelligence that is fostered when you are unable to simply demand the world behave as you wish. Deep in the forest, a trace of the last girl scout’s posture in the arch of a mercenary’s neck as he carves the stakes for a pitfall, waiting for night and the arrival of whatever picked off his team one by one. A comic echo of her in the antics of a bratty kid, comprehensively booby-trapping his home as the burglars circle on Christmas Eve. Or, addressing her ingenuity to less tangible materials, she becomes the con-man talking his way out of the interrogation room, twisting the undeniable evidence tabled before him into an escape route. And on, and on, her portrait dynamically fractured across the screens of a thousand low-rent cinemas and cheap laptops propped up on beds around the world at any given moment.
She is strange, this figure. Taking the form of a human being, she is nonetheless resistant to biography. Nationality, occupation, family structure, a catalogue of likes and dislikes, none of them substantially bear on the actions she undertakes. It would be true to say that the last girl scout is defined less by particular personal qualities than by impersonal ones. This you can see in her eyes: their colour may change, but across the sea of faces she wears, her eyes are always the same. At once engaged, focussed and distant. Attentive but remote. These are not the eyes of a regular person, considering regular things, but of a being that moves through its environment in a way that marries autonomic speed with a peculiar sophistication, like a reflex that has learned to think for itself. The last girl scout does not develop so much as regenerate; she is always building something new, and only exists when doing so.
This means there can be no definitive tale of the last girl scout. There will always remain novel integrations of location and peril to be explored, perpetual sequels and reboots. She is inexhaustible. A fiction equal to her might have to go the other way, not trying to round her into a singular character, but seizing instead on the fact that anyone can be her — indeed, many have been, and not just on the screen. After all, her signature eyes, with their paradoxical coupling of the attentive and the indifferent, are shared by everyone who has ever made something, in the moment they made it.
The movement of the last girl scout’s hands as she improvises a machine simultaneously weaves a history of technology. Not the story we are used to, about men of legendary talent coolly ordering the world, but of design as a weapon of the weak. Amongst the first was a fire, her construction of an artificial sun in the failing light. Then as now, the last girl scout does not hold out for a Prometheus. She gets on with it herself.
The inhabitants of a city that does not quite exist yet will understand the objects that furnish every pocket and shelf as merchandise in her expansive franchise. Everyday artefacts are inadvertent tie-ins that suggest, however distantly, the inventive procedure she presents at its most simple, urgent and raw — although she, of course, has long since moved on, and we observe this record like astronomers, studying the light from dead stars. Charged with staging their own history through this lens, the city’s cultural institutions will be transformed. New entrances to museums are knocked through from the less-used auditoria of the cinemas next door. Following the tracks of emergency lighting sunk into the floor, visitors descend the steps of the aisle through the terraced seats, and walk through the place where the screen used to be into a room filled with spears, nets and diagrams of the most basic techniques of survival. From there, they wander the galleries in the diffuse museum light, fascinated faces reflected in the sloping glass of display cabinets filled with objects become increasingly more complex, born of less immediate emergencies, implicated in more abstract escapes — testaments to her great age, her enduring influence, the reach of her imagination, the diversity of her exploits, and her absence.
Outside, in the night air, the billboards that tower above the streets offer a terminal transmission: the geometry of her face — calm, fierce, hollow, going on forever, full of stars.
Benedict Singleton is a strategist with a background in design and philosophy. Based in London, he co-runs a graduate architecture studio at the Royal College of Art. He has contributed essays to Speculative Aesthetics and #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader and regularly writes on the politics and philosophy of technology for publications such as Architectural Design and e-flux.
Alex Solman is an illustrator based in Hamburg.