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From Feminine to Masculine to Feminine Again: The Psychic Woman in the Slasher Film

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

The late 1980s were a cornucopia of slasher films, with 1988 and 1989 featuring films that either launched or continued some of the most venerable horror franchises: Hellraiser, Pumpkinhead, Maniac Cop, Child’s Play, Poltergeist, and Return of the Living Dead, among others. However, three of the longest-lived and most mainstream franchises featured a recurring theme that flips the narrative of the Final Girl. Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers, Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers, Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, and A Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master all feature a Final Girl with telekinetic or psychic powers. On the surface, this seems like a unique way to “power up” the Final Girl to make the inevitable final conflict more scintillating. After all, the respective franchises had seen Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger increase their own powers, particularly in an effort to continue the franchise. Each of the slashers had been beaten, bludgeoned, stabbed, buried, burned, and blown up, and still continued to return. The supernatural was perhaps the last recourse to continually bring back these characters (especially the supposedly “human” Michael Myers). The supernatural angle became particularly acute in Friday the 13th Part VI, which featured Jason Voorhees gaining super strength after getting hit by lightning.

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

Thus, making the Final Girl more powerful, in a sort of arms race, became a given.  Interestingly, however, the three Final Girls in these respective films exhibited psychic powers. Jamie Lloyd has a psychic bond with Michael Myers that slowly drives her insane; Tina Shephard exhibits telekinetic powers during emotional stress; Kristen has the power to pull other people into her dreams, a power she later bestows upon Alice. What makes this trend so interesting, however, and what this essay explores, is that these women (unlike most Final Girl) are often directly responsible for the demise of the other characters, perhaps more so than the murderers themselves. Jamie Lloyd not only stabs her stepmother to death at the end of Halloween IV, she also refuses to help the increasingly unbalanced Dr. Loomis in Halloween V, which directly results in several deaths, including several of Jamie’s friends. Tina Shephard, wracked by guilt over her telekinetic murder of her father, attempts to raise him from the lake, but instead frees Jason who, naturally, begins a murder spree. Kristen, and particularly Alice, consistently drag others into their dreams in an effort to stop Freddy; however, this often leads to their deaths.  Freddy, in particular, actually wants Alice to continue to bring him victims; “Call on one of your friends,” he begs Kristen, thirsting for additional victims.

The Final Girl, as Carol Clover has argued, is ultimately the most masculine of the group of victims in a slasher film, typically embodying either masculine traits (strength, resilience) or masculine idealized versions of femininity (chastity). They are

[t]he one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril, who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again.  She is abject terror personified. […] she along also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or kill him herself (ending B). (Clover 35)

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

But the three females—Jamie, Tina, and Alice—do not necessarily fit this description. Yes, they do scream, and they do feel terror when confronted with their opposing slasher but, in the end of their respective narratives, they ultimately fail to stop the killer on their own. Jamie needs Dr. Loomis’s help in subduing Michael Myers, but he escapes. Tina briefly resurrects her father, who drags Jason to the bottom of the lake. Alice temporarily defeats Freddy, but only by absorbing the dream powers of his victims. And, again, each of the three Final Girls in these films are directly responsible for the deaths of their friends.

So, the question is—if these films don’t feature a Final Girl in the conventional sense, then what type of characters are they?

In The Madwoman in the Attic, female literary characters who exhibit some form of clairvoyance are using

A strategy for survival in a hostile male-dominated world. Denied the freedom to act openly out in the world, [the] heroines exploit their intuitive understanding of the needs of the male ego in order to provide comfortable places for themselves in society. […] While prevision and clairvoyance seem first like curses, these women eventually convert such powers into subversive modes of communication. (Gilbert and Gubar 473-474).

In this regard one could argue that Jamie, Tina, and Alice all do follow a process with their abilities, moving from cursed outcast to ultimate victor, and in doing so find some sort of freedom. However, this is strictly for clairvoyance, a way of seeing the future, a psychic ability none of these women actually represent. Additionally, the fact that Jamie, Tina, and Alice are all directly responsible for the slaughter within their respective worlds would indicate that this particular version of femininity is not only subversive, but dangerously so. This would mean that Jamie (continually harangued by Dr. Loomis), Tina (continually harangued by Dr. Crews), and Alice (at times literally confined by her father Dennis’s alcoholism) are lashing out at the male figures in their lives by unleashing alpha male predators to consume them. It becomes a case of female subversion in that the male oppressors are eventually overcome and destroyed by supernatural male oppressors, who, in turn, eventually turn their rage on the women who summoned them. This definition of female subversion, then, struggles to hold.

However, there have been male characters in literature who have exhibited psychic abilities like telepathy. In writing about the male character Latimer in George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil, Gilbert and Gubar argue that his “telepathy is a metaphor for his ‘feminine’ qualities—sensitivity to the needs of others, physical weakness, exquisite sensibilities, presumably angelic or demonic powers and shrinking modesty” (473).

This description of Latimer more closely matches Jamie, Tina, and Alice and their experiences than the description of female characters. When coupled with Carol Clover’s definition of the Final Girl, therein lies an extraordinary amount of gender blurring. Jamie, Tina, and Alice, all Final Girls, are women who have taken on the masculine role in order to survive but, in doing so, have also had to embrace the inherently feminine qualities of their telepathic and psychic powers. The final result is a mind-bending discourse on gender: the women take on the masculine role and, in doing so, they manage to embrace the feminine aspects of their psychic abilities. Only by embracing and understanding their psychic abilities can they at once be masculine (Final Girl) and feminine (psychic abilities). It is an equation that would be at home with Shakespearean drama, in which male actors playing female characters often don male clothing in order to pass as male.

Thus, Jamie, Tina, and Alice are essentially Russian nesting dolls of gender, and this idea helps explain the confounding nature of their existence. Follow the narrative arc of these three women and one will find their gender characteristics shift dramatically over the span of the film.

Halloween 5 (1989)

Already ostracized for her relationship to Michael Myers in Halloween IV, Jamie Lloyd is fully shunned by the start of Halloween V. Having murdered her stepmother, she is now mute and spends her time under the “care” of Dr. Loomis—who was barely stopped from shooting her at the end of Halloween IV—in the Haddonfield Children’s Clinic. She is chaste (at nine years old) and fully marginalized by this point, fully feminized in the typical tropes of the slasher film.  At one point, someone throws a well-timed brick through her window with the note “The evil child must die” written on it. However, Jamie resists her masculine gendered role as the Final Girl for much of the film and, once Michael Myers awakes from his coma and begins to kill again, she refuses to assist Dr. Loomis. She eventually agrees, however, to help Dr. Loomis and uses her telepathic bond with Michael Myers to help Dr. Loomis find the killer. When Jamie makes this decision (with a not inconsiderable amount of pressure from the increasingly obsessive Loomis), she both accepts her Final Girl status while also agreeing to use her feminized powers of empathy.

Jamie Lloyd, in that decision to help Dr. Loomis becomes masculine and then, as a masculinized Final Girl, embraces the feminine nature of her telepathy. She is at once feminine and masculine and feminine again. She uses her telepathy to help Michael Myers, but is ultimately helpless as he pursues her. She even exhibits “sensitivity” (Gilbert and Gubar 473) toward Myers when he shows her his unmasked face, remarking that he’s “just like” her. This sympathy is short-lived, however, and her physical weakness—she never battles Myers as the Final Girl—dominates most of the final sequence of the film. Jamie Lloyd functions less as a Final Girl and more as a telepathic witness to the events.

Tina, in Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, is also under the thumb of an oppressive doctor. In this case, Dr. Crews has taken Tina and her mother back to the lakeside cabin where Tina’s father drowned ostensibly in an effort to rehabilitate her. Later, Tina’s mother discovers that Dr. Crews is uninterested in Tina’s recovery, but hopes to study and harness who nascent telekinetic powers. Like Jamie, Tina is marginalized, pressured by her caregiver to fully embrace her Final Girl status. She is socially awkward, often openly chastised or ignored by many of the other teens that have gathered at Crystal Lake. She begins a semi-romantic relationship with Nick, telling him at one point that “you don’t want to mess around with me,” telling him that her father’s death “messed up [her] head.” When Tina accidentally frees Jason Voorhees, she is, at that moment, the Final Girl. She does indeed discover numerous dead bodies and is terrorized by Jason who murders everyone in sight. At this point, the process seems to be complete: she has moved from feminine (awkward, socially inept) to masculine (fighting back).

However, Dr. Crews’s pursuit of Tina’s telekinetic powers allows her to fight against Jason in an entirely new way. Using her telekinetic powers, she manages to continually rebuff Jason as he pursues her and Nick. She, in turn, electrocutes him, sets him on fire, and hangs him from the ceiling. Of course, the now supernatural Jason, remains relatively undaunted, and is only defeated when Tina fully embraces her feminized powers while still retaining the masculine role of the Final Girl. She reanimates her dead father long enough for him to grab Jason and drag him back to the bottom of the lake. Both Tina and Nick survive, but her process follows the same path from feminine to masculine and then feminine again. She at once embodies the Final Girl and then, in the final moment, re-embraces her femininity.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

Alice, who absorbs the powers of her predecessor Kristen, follows the same narrative trajectory. She, too, is socially awkward and in an apparently chaste relationship at the start of the film. She is also controlled by a domineering male figure; in this case, her alcoholic father.  However, when she absorbs Kristen’s powers, she finds that, with every additional victim, she gains their dream powers as well (super strength and agility, for example), and she ultimately becomes a feminized Final Girl. She is initially and easily terrorized by Freddy Krueger, who delights in her ability to drag others into her dreams, as doing so provides him with a new victim for his growing power. In fact, the final showdown between Freddy and the Final Girl Alice reveals that, even with her physical powers, she cannot defeat Freddy. Her strength does little to faze him, as he shrugs off the beating she pours out.

At the climax of this final battle, however, Alice realizes that the masculine role of the Final Girl will not help her. She instead embraces her “exquisite sensibilities” (Gilbert and Gubar 473) and realizes that Freddy derives power from the souls of the children he has consumed.  Thus, her solution is not to destroy or overcome or escape, as per the Final Girl trope, but rather to rescue. In looking in a shard of a mirror, Alice realizes the feminine within herself for she appears in the reflection not bloody and bruised, but wholly feminized. Freddy, however, has a different response to his own reflection: she lets “evil see itself,” which empowers the captured souls to tear themselves out of Freddy’s body. Alice, at the end, like Tina and Jamie, survive with their male counterpart (Dan, Nick, and Billy, respectively), who are, interestingly, themselves feminized by the end of the film. Nick, and Billy, who serve as the romantic counterparts (in Jamie’s case a mutual childhood crush), are rendered immobile and helpless by the killer. Their purpose in the film, other than the romantic interest, is to be rescued by the Feminized Final Girl.

All of this, however, has yet to address one of the most troubling aspects of these three films. In each film, the Feminized Final Girl is responsible for the multiple deaths. Their complicity—for each of them at some point acknowledges their role in these deaths—is problematic to the supposed hero(ine) status of the Final Girl. The key here is that the Final Girls all survive with a plus one, and that those men – Dan, Nick, and Billy – are all relatively new introductions to their lives.

In this regard, on a subconscious level, Jamie, Tina, and Alice all use the killers as a means to an end. Unwittingly, Michael, Jason, and Freddy perform a positive act for the women in removing what came before: the carriers of their stigma. Each of the victims are brutally aware of (and worried about) the outcast nature of the Final Girls and, as such, Jamie, Tina, and Alice cannot escape the shame that is thrust upon them. Jamie is continually marginalized by the murder of her stepmother; Tina is outcast for her role in the death of her father; Alice carries the stigma of her drunken father and her social awkwardness.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

Each of these films, then, are more progressive than they seem. The summoning of Michael, Jason, and Freddy are a symbolic means to an end and, in each of the narrative arcs, Jamie, Tina, and Alice wipe the slate clean and start over again. In order to begin their new lives, they not only have to embrace their role as the Final Girl, become feminized again, but they must also come out on the other side of the conflict with a completely new set of relationships, ones free from the social stigma each of the women carry. To put it simply, Jamie, Tina, and Alice are all confined by the “glass coffins” of their prior relationships and experiences (Gilbert and Gubar 89), and in order to break free, they must reject everything that came before, including friendships, family members, and casual acquaintances. In the height of conflict, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger are wiping the slate clean for the women, only to fall themselves when the supposed female “victims” embrace their femininity and newfound independence.

Thus, for Jamie, Tina, and Alice, there remains only one chore after their worlds have been reset: to rid themselves of the remaining feelings of abjection. In this case, the abjection—the reminders of one’s corporeality—have to be cast aside. Both Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger are essentially walking corpses, and Michael Myers may as well be, given his numerous improbably endings and his mask that robs him of all features. The corpse, “the most sickening of wastes […] that has encroached upon everything” (Kristeva 3), must be removed.  Only then can the Feminized Final Girls achieve a newfound state of acceptance in society and within themselves. The final showdown that underpins almost every slasher film is leavened with additional importance in these films for the women, having summoned the corpses or empowered them, must ultimately reject them and the abjection they bring.

In this process, they remain some of the most confounding and complex Final Girls in American slasher [i]cinema. In defeating (albeit temporarily) or rejecting Michael, Jason, and Freddy, Jamie, Tina, and Alice all reassert control over their lives, as if larva finally emerging from their cocoons. They have successfully turned from feminine to masculine to feminine again and, along the way, they have rejected one form of abjection, taking themselves away from “the border of [their] condition as a living being” (Kristeva 3). By the end of their respective stories, Jamie, Tina, and Alice have succeeded in embracing life and by eschewing the anchors of stigma that kept them away from the world around them.

 

Works Cited:

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chainsaws. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2015.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2000.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. Columbia UP, 1982.

 

[i] It is important to note that Jamie Lloyd’s story arc, in fact, spans three films.  In Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Myers, an adult Jamie gives birth to a child before dying at the hands of Michael Myers.  However, it is important to note that Jamie receives the assistance of a nurse, and that her psychic link to Michael seems to have been severed, indicating that she was successful in personally overcoming her abjection.

About Jason Barr

Jason Barr is the author of The Kaiju Film: A Critical History of Cinema's Biggest Monsters and has a co-edited volume on kaiju and pop culture coming out soon.

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