Psycho Final Girls
Many people, including myself, consider Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho to be the film that kicked off the modern era of horror. Let me pause right here to let you know that this article will be full of spoilers. The movie has proven to be among the most important and influential films of the genre. If you have never seen it, please view it before you continue reading this article so you can truly appreciate how effective this 60-year-old film still is.
From the amazing portrayal by Anthony Perkins of Norman Bates to the twist ending and one of the single most talked about and analyzed on-screen kills in history; this movie is iconic for good reasons. I propose that another reason that the film is still so engaging today are the two lead female characters, Marion Crane and her sister Lila. Decades before the films that it would inspire, Psycho shows us a pair of very strong and independent women.
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What is the Final Girl?
In 1987 professor Carol Clover analyzed a group of slasher films using a feminist lens and coined the phrase “Final Girl” in her article Her Body, Himself: Gender and the Slasher Film. Without getting into the nitty-gritty of Clover’s themes, or her problematic reliance on Freudian theory, let’s quickly recap the idea of the Final Girl. Clover shows the common theme of leading teenage ladies that are strong because of their differences from their friends that make it to the end of the movie to face off against the villains (be it to either to hold off the killer long enough to be saved by a man or to turn the tide and defeat the killer on her own). Final Girls are identified as smart, bookish, virginal, almost prudish, and aware of the strange things happening around her.
All of the films Clover discusses could be considered the children of Psycho, coming out in the mid-1970s or the 1980s; films that would become influential and important in their own right: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Texas Chainsaw Part 2 (1986). I propose that the women in these films – Sally, Laurie, Ginny, Nancy, and Stretch – can trace their origins to the Crane sisters. Now let’s go back to Psycho with this concept of strong female characters in mind.
Introducing Marion Crane
First, we meet Marion Crane, who shows us pretty early on that she is an independent, smart woman that works for a living, has a sassy attitude, and is willing to take matters into her own hands. While she may not make the best decisions (stealing money is not the smartest way to fix your problems) she still proves herself to be a bold risk-taker nonetheless. These are not the most common traits to see in a female film character of this time. Marion is no blushing bride or damsel in distress. She is a fast-thinking, proactive gal that eventually decides to do the right thing and fess up to her wrongdoings.
Marion is a three-dimensional woman with a career, a man she wants to settle down with, and a good deal of mistakes to make up for, but most real characters in fiction have flaws. We want to see Marion go back to Phoenix, give back the money, and find the right way to help her boyfriend Sam out of debt so they can get married. We are along for the ride through her thoughts and actions. For the first half of Psycho, is Marion’s story. But then she does the first thing that ensures that she cannot be a final girl – she dies.
Introducing Lila Crane
Then we meet Lila Crane. When Marion goes missing, Lila shows up at Sam’s hardware store to interrogate him. She proves to be very much like her sister and took matters into her own hands by investigating for herself. Lila is also an intelligent, strong, bold, and independent woman. Her sister is missing, so she will take care of it. While we don’t get to spend as much time with Lila as an audience, we can still tell that she is a character whose flaws maybe her desire to act right away and put herself in harm’s way. Lila may even be braver than not just Marion, but even braver than Sam as well. Sam is content to wait and see what happens and let others take care of things, while Lila feels useless doing nothing and needs to be an active part of the search.
Both Marion and Lila have no problem standing up to men and making their opinions heard (as when Marion attempts to avoid the policeman by buying a new car – again maybe not the best decision, but she stands firm and doesn’t let the men dissuade her). Lila is fearless and has no problem confronting Sam, private investigator Arbogast, or the town’s sheriff. When Arbogast doesn’t return from the Bates Motel, she argues against staying behind when Sam goes to check it out. Then, still not happy with his actions, she presses for them to visit the town’s sheriff.
When she does get to the Hotel, Lila finds the single clue left behind that even the investigator missed – the piece of paper in the toilet with the number 40,000 written on it. This is followed by her investigation of the house which informs the audience about both Norman and his mother by showing us their bedrooms. And in a more traditional role for a Final Girl, Lila is the one to solve the mystery of who Mother really is, even though she needs Sam to save her from Norman. (We don’t commonly see examples of Final Girls that defeat their killers until the 1980s.)
So Can the Women of Psycho Be Considered Final Girls?
So if Marion is definitely not a Final Girl, since she didn’t make it to the end of the movie, is Lila the Final Girl of this story? To me, the answer is no. Lila was never the main protagonist of the film. This was never her story. While the first half of the movie is all about Marion and her journey, once Marion dies in that fatal shower scene, the focus instantly shifts to Norman as the main character. Lila and Sam’s story is secondary to us learning more about who Norman is and what will happen to him.
Of course, the biggest difference between the Crane sisters and Clover’s heroines is age. The fact that Marion and Lila are grown women while the slasher protagonists are typically teenagers allows for some variances. With age, one usually expects maturity and experience to follow, accounting for adult women that are no longer meek or timid but can now be confident self-made women. For one thing, there is nothing virginal about Marion Crane, who is introduced to the audience in her bra and slip in a hotel room with her boyfriend on her lunch break. While this may have seemed outrageous at the time, today this is trivial. It merely serves to explain the measures she would go through to be able to move this affair into the realm of a legitimate relationship.
Not to say that there is no sex to be had in slasher films, just not by the Final Girl of yore (of course this too changed in the 90s – I’m looking at you Sidney Prescott of Scream). Perhaps it is the lack of distraction from boys and carnal pleasures that makes these girls so hyper-aware of the danger that their friends are in, but also the 80s were a peak time of teenage sex in movies so they needed to show the audience that the main protagonist was different than other girls. All of this to say, the women of Psycho are clearly old enough to no longer be considered girls, while Clover focused almost exclusively on teenagers for her analysis of the Final Girl theory (Stretch being the only adult character she observed).
If neither of these women is proto-typical Final Girls, why is Psycho important to the development of future Final Girl movies? I believe that it is the pairing of both of these women’s stories together that create an archetype that girls like Laurie Strode of Halloween and Nancy Thompson from Nightmare on Elm Street can aspire to be like. Marion’s bold risk-taking attitude paired with Lila’s fearlessness and curious nature that work together to become someone like Stretch in Chainsaw 2. Both Marion and Lila step away from the mold of women in thrillers of the 50s and 60s. Outside of the film noir genre (which highlighted villainous femme fatales) women of this era were not known for being strong and standing up for themselves. These two women, much like the teenage Final Girls that would emerge from slashers, were more than just a pretty object of male desire; they were forces of nature that propelled their movie forward.
So between the brash and bold Marion and the unafraid and inquisitive Lila, we have the inspiration for many of the brave Final Girls that followed. These two female characters prove that it is alright for a strong woman to have flaws while still following their own destiny. These important women paved the way for Nancy to take down Freddy and Laurie to stand up to Michael. Female characters in horror, even sometimes when they don’t make it to the final frame, can give killers everywhere a run for their money …at least until it’s time for the next sequel when another woman can step up to the task.