Proof These (Infuriating) Horror Movie Tropes Are Changing

The topic of women in horror films is a gnarly, complicated one. On the one hand, horror features women more prominently than any other genre. According to a study conducted by Google and the Geena Davis Institute, horror is the only genre in which women have more onscreen and speaking time than men. Plus, we have horror movies to thank for some of film's most empowered heroines and badass (if a bit twisted) villains — think back to Carrie and Ellen Ripley.
On the other hand, the genre is saddled with blatant sexism, the locus of which is found in the trope of the Final Girl – and in her opposite. In classic slasher movies, the Final Girl emerges from an encounter with great evil, bloody but unbroken. Her other female friends are usually not so lucky, typically meeting their demise after having sex. As the "Sex By Death" trope goes, if a woman has sex in a horror movie, she’s doomed to die.
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Has the genre moved beyond the association between sex and death? If recent films are any proof, then more and more filmmakers are revitalizing the horror genre by undermining tropes like Sex By Death and the Final Girl. Here are some of the worst offenders — and ones that subvert the tropes, making room for more nuanced conceptions of sexuality.
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But first: What's a Final Girl?

When you hear the phrase “Final Girl,” you likely think of Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in Halloween, an ordinary girl who survives a confrontation with pure evil through luck and a dash of smarts. A trope most prominently featured in slasher movies, the Final Girl is the last, and only, person left standing at the movie's end. Her characterization adheres to certain behaviors: She's a virgin, she doesn't drink or smoke, and she's happily straight-edge.

Broadly, you can think of the Final Girl in two ways. “She’s a feminist renegade to some fans, including women, but a sexist fantasy figure to others,” wrote Erik Piepenburg in The New York Times.

What’s so sexist about a girl reigning triumphant over a villain? The Final Girl is contrasted with the girls who came before her — the ones who died. Typically, those girls have something in common: They all had sex. Check these examples out.
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Halloween (1978)

We can thank this movie for firmly laying out the "Final Girl" and "Death by Sex" tropes. On one side of the spectrum of teenage sexuality, there's Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), an innocent, perfectly nice babysitter. Then, there's Laurie's best friend Lynda (P.J. Soles), who has sex with her boyfriend.

Michael Myers (Nick Castle) kills the sexually active teenagers right after they finish doing the deed. Laurie survives.
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Friday the 13th (1980 and 2009)

Every character who even thinks about sex is killed by Jason Voorhees in both the original Friday the 13th and the more contemporary reboot. Both movies start with sex scenes, because when night falls on Camp Crystal Lake, what else is there to do?

Friday the 13th starts in the year 1958, when two counselors are taking off their clothes, and are killed. Cut to 1980, when Jack (Kevin Bacon) and Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) have sex in a bunk bed. They die right afterwards.

Similarly, in the 2009 reboot, the Sex by Death trope is enacted immediately. Amanda (America Olivo) and her boyfriend (Ben Feldman) are having sex in a tent in the woods, as one does. She becomes convinced someone's watching them. She leaves the tent, and is immediately killed.
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Prom Night (1980)

As happens so often in many slashers, a couple is killed right after having sex. Though in Prom Night, no one's safe. Kelly (Mary Beth Rubens) is murdered even after refusing to give into her boyfriend's advances. Jamie Lee Curtis reprises her role as a slasher flick Final Girl in Prom Night.

The 2008 remake of Prom Night eliminated the conflation of sex and death, and was just plain gory.
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Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

This Wes Craven film is a staple in the slasher movie genre, and unsurprisingly, isn't kind to its promiscuous characters. Tina (Amanda Wyss) is killed almost immediately after sleeping with her boyfriend, Rod (Nick Corri). Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), on the other hand, politely refuses her boyfriend when he suggests they have sex. She survives.
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Cabin Fever (2002)

Five college friends go to a cabin in the woods because clearly, they haven't seen enough horror movies, and don't realize that's a bad idea. Instead of being preyed on by a slasher, the group is offed by a flesh-eating virus.

For the most part, the first manifestations of the disease all are related to sex. Paul (Rider Stong) finds Karen's (Jordan Ladd) wound when he's feeling her up. Burt (James DeBello) finds traces of the rash near his crotch. And, despite knowing Marcy (Cerina Vincent) is sick, Paul has sex with her.
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Sorority Row (2009)

Though the "Sex by Death" trope was established in early slasher films like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street, it has continued to appear in contemporary horror movies.

The tag line of this 2009 slasher is "Theta Pi Must Die," so you can bet that the sorority girls in this college town meet unfortunate demises with tire irons. Sorority Row is a particular offender in the trope that having sex leads to death. All of the promiscuous, sexually active girls are killed off. Cassidy (Briana Evigan) and Ellie (Rumer Willis) survive, and both happen to be virgins.

Generally, the women in Sorority Row are unlikeable — which is another marker that a female character is doomed to die. As Andrew Cooper points out in his book Gothic Realities: The Impact of Horror Fiction on Modern Culture, "If a woman mouths off too much, you know she’s gone."
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Piranha 3D (2010)

In slasher movies, individual killers stake out their victims deliberately, often leading to the deaths of promiscuous characters first. Well, looks like the trope still applies when the predator is a a horde of carnivorous fish. In Piranha 3D, spring-breakers, a pornographer, and a porn actress are all chomped.

The 2010 movie Snakes on a Plane cements the fact that sex is punished by death in pretty much all horror movies, not just slashers. The first people to die by snake poison are a couple having sex in the airplane bathroom.
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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D (2013)

Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) in the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which kicked off the now-massive franchise, is widely considered to be the original "Final Girl." The correlation between sex and death is never firmly established in that 1974 film, but it is later on in the franchise.

In the 2013 Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Ryan (Trey Songz) and Nikki (Tania Raymonde) have sex in a barn, even though Ryan's dating Heather (Alexandra Daddario). Ryan and Nikki are murdered by Leatherface. Heather survives.
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All that said, not all horror movies are doomed to repeat the same tropes over and over again.

In fact, Cabin in the Woods (2012) cleverly plays with the tropes of the Final Girl and Sex by Death. The movie begins as so many horror movies do: A group of five friends go to a cabin in the woods. What they don't know, however, is that they're actually part of a yearly routine to sacrifice youth to the ancient gods. The five friends each fulfill an archetype seen in horror movies: The athlete, the whore, the virgin, the fool, the scholar.

According to the rules of the Ritual, the whore must be the first to die. The virgin is the only one who can survive. If she dies, she has to die last. After Dana (Kristen Connolly) discovers she's destined to be the Final Girl of her own life, she subverts her role in the scheme.
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Scream (1996)

We couldn't have a conversation about subverting horror genre tropes without bringing Scream into the mix. When a serial killer starts picking off victims in the small town of Woodsboro, a group of friends realizes their lives mirror old slasher movies. They use their knowledge to try to beat the killer.

Neve Campbell's Sidney Prescott is a modern update of the Final Girl. As Kaitlin Reilly wrote in Refinery29, "Her survival in the film is not contingent on how 'good' she is, but rather on how much she's willing to fight for what she wants." The biggest deviation from the trope, though, is that Sidney has sex with her boyfriend — and lives to see the end of the movie. Scream breaks from the precedent that women survive horror movies only because they'd preserved their virtue.
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It Follows (2014)

This brilliant movie follows in Cabin in the Woods' footsteps by subverting the tired tropes of the horror genre. Nineteen-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex with her boyfriend, only to find that she's the latest recipient of a sexually transmitted curse in which death inches closer and closer to you. Jay's doomed to outrun "It" for the rest of her life – unless she passes "It" to someone else through sex.

As with the other horror movies, sex does lead to death in It Follows, but in a truly novel way.
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The Final Girls (2015)

Clearly, the key to subverting tropes is to first get very, very meta. The Final Girls succeeds in both lambasting the tropes seen in '80s horror movies and also being a good horror movie. Max's (Taissa Famiga) mother was famous for playing the Final Girl in a famous slasher called Camp Bloodbath. By some miracle, Max and her friends end up in the movie Camp Bloodbath. Since, after watching so many trope-y horror movies, they're experts in the genre, they think they know how to survive Billy the killer's wrath.

The first rule? Making sure no one has sex, because "everyone who has sex dies."
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Stranger Things (2016)

Stranger Things is a TV show on Netflix, but it's pulling from elements of '80s sci-fi and horror movies. Its aesthetic resemblance to old films is why we all thought Barb (Shannon Purser) would survive. In old movies, the virgin always does. Instead, while her best friend Nancy (Natalia Dyer) loses her virginity to her boyfriend, Barb sulks outside — and is snatched by a monster. Later on in the season, Nancy picks up a variety of weapons and goes out to face the monster, becoming the show's version of a "Final Girl."
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