Horror films are a strange genre for a lot of reasons, but one reason in particular is the focus on (and reverence for) antagonists over protagonists. Many slasher franchises are known for their villains, who are often the only characters to consistently appear in every movie. Even I would say Jason is the main character in the Friday the 13th series, even if I’m not rooting for him. The villains have distinct appearances that make it easy to dress up like them, and they often come complete with their own musical cues and signature weapons. This distinct and marketable physical presence is often a sharp contrast to the protagonists in these films who are often everyday, nondescript people who barely survive one film and rarely return to fight another day. Yet the protagonists are the characters we are meant to root for and identify with. And interestingly, despite horror’s perennial appeal across the gender spectrum, the protagonists in slashers are almost always a woman in her teens or twenties who takes the mantle of “the final girl.”
There are a lot of fantastic final girls, and the two that often get heralded as the greatest are Laurie Strode and Ellen Ripley of Halloween and Alien, respectively. But like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, they represent opposite extremes in final girls: an extremely relatable but not really “badass” final girl, and an extreme badass who isn’t that relatable.
Laurie Strode: Realistic But Not Inspiring
Laurie Strode is probably the most recognizable final girl thanks to a stellar performance by Jamie Lee Curtis. Curtis is a great actress, and her talent and long-lasting career coupled with the evergreen popularity of Halloween has led to a peculiar reverence for Laurie as a final girl. But though Laurie is one of the first well-known final girls, she isn’t exactly an inspiring one. She is nervous, easily embarrassed, and a bit serious for her age. She is utterly normal and extremely relatable, which makes the film terrifying and effective. She shows particular strength when instructing the kids she is babysitting to go run and seek help while she attempts to neutralize Michael. But she is ultimately rescued by Dr. Loomis, and is a traumatized mess on the floor by the end of her terrible encounter. Again, this is not a knock – that’s what I would be doing in the situation – but it isn’t inspiring to see that level of realism. As one of the first final girls, she is important but the trope has not taken its final form yet.
Ellen Ripley: Badass But Not Relatable
A year after Halloween, Alien came out. A science fiction horror masterpiece, the film features a space ship’s crew being hunted one by one by a seemingly unstoppable alien. Ellen Ripley is often touted on “best of” lists as final girl, but despite the similarities to slashers, Alien is too different from slashers to consider Ripley a final girl. She is a professional woman, resembling an action hero more than a frightened teenage girl who comes to realize she needs to fight back in order to survive. Please let me be clear in stating I don’t find Ripley unrealistic in her competence, but there isn’t the same sense of danger as a young and carefree life being potentially cut short that is present in teen slashers. Ripley is an iconic female character, and there is an interesting theme of motherhood throughout the Alien series, but she could have just as easily been a male character (and in fact was written as one). She is iconic in part because she would typically be a male character, and just…wasn’t this time. Which is great and at the time this was progressive in and of itself. She is the kind of cool movie character who we acknowledge is awesome, but isn’t really relatable. Not in a Mary Sue way, but more in a “I think Furiosa is awesome but I don’t see myself in her” sort of way.
Nancy Thompson: A Realistic and Relatable Badass
Instead, the most inspiring final girl of all time combines the relatability and realisticness of Laurie Strode with the steadfast dedication and coolheadedness of Ellen Ripley. Nancy Thompson is a uniquely relatable final girl and protagonist, and her defeat of Freddy Kruger in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street serves as an inspiration to overcome daily struggles both great and small. Here are the distinctions that make Nancy Thompson stand out as a source of inspiration to us all.
Nancy is *Just* a Normal Teenage Girl
And that is not to say teenage girls can’t be awesome. Instead, unlike later Nightmare on Elm Street final girls Kristen Parker and Alice Johnson, Nancy doesn’t have special powers to fight Freddy. She is also not a confident space officer like Ellen Ripley, or a college student with specialized knowledge like Ginny in Friday the 13th Part II. Instead she is just a teenage girl, which puts her at a severe at a disadvantage when fighting a supernatural killer.
She is sufficiently scared and grief-stricken in ways that make her realistic and relatable, without the movie fixating on her pain and suffering as a spectacle.
She is also not explicitly a virgin. She gently rebuffs Glen’s advances when spending the night at Tina’s, but explains it is because they are there to support Tina. Although sexuality isn’t as heavily associated with death in A Nightmare on Elm Street as it is with other slashers, it is important to note Nancy’s eventual victory over Freddy is not a byproduct of her virginity or lack thereof.
Nancy is Smart and Resourceful
Nancy is armed with a desire to survive, a refusal to be gaslit, and her bumbling boyfriend Glen who can’t even follow her one instruction:
Instead of believing Rod killed Tina despite the evidence, Nancy instead believes her instincts and Tina’s story about her disturbing dreams. She is curious and knows she needs to learn about Fred Krueger in order to defeat him, so she explores her dreamscapes in controlled bursts by either asking Glen to wake her up, hurting herself in the dream to snap her back in reality, or setting alarms. When Glen asks what she is doing when she is reading a book about setting booby traps, she tells him she is into survival.
She repeatedly refuses to just ignore the problem, despite multiple people dismissing her and her concerns, or stating they will protect her. She is literally and figuratively the most awake when it comes to the danger, and takes action to protect herself.
Nancy’s Defeat of Freddy is Unique and Captures the True Essence of Fighting Our Monsters
Almost all final girls fight the main villain. Some do this by using their weapons against them. Others do it by tricking them into a trap. Others are simply rescued by other characters. Nancy “fights” by boobytrapping her house and pulling Freddy out of her dreams. She knows she can’t beat him in dreams because he is all powerful. She knows she can pull him into the real world after she accidently pulls his hat out of a nightmare earlier.
But her boobytraps don’t work the way she needs them to work. She manages to light him on fire with a Molotov cocktail and lock him in the basement (echoing the way he died at the hands of the vigilante mob her parents were part of). Unfortunately he escapes and murders her mother in front of her and her father. This is a shocking twist and put Nancy in her lowest emotional state yet. Nancy gently gives her father permission to go downstairs when he is called down by a fellow officer who is investigating Glen’s death across the street. Nancy knows she needs to confront Freddy alone. When he appears she calmly tells him the deal:
It’s too late Krueger. I know the secret now. This is just a dream, too . You’re not alive. The whole thing is just a dream. I want my mother and friends again. I take back every bit of energy I ever gave you. You’re nothing. You’re shit.A Nightmare on Elm Street
And then she just turns around and walks away. Freddy goes to kill her, and dissipates.
Nancy defeats the killer not with a blade but with the power of her own mind. She stops letting her fear dictate her reality, and realizes Freddy could only win if she nurtured his strength with her fear. Interestingly, the original script calls for her to shout “fuck off!” at Freddy during her final words to him. I think it was a wise decision to omit that line in the final performance, and instead stick to a more serious and sincere delivery of her demands to Freddy.
So just like that, in what seems like a plug for the infamous self-help book The Secret, Nancy merely wishfully thinks her very corporal problems away!
Except she doesn’t.
The final scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street was a huge point of contention between creator Wes Craven and Bob Shaye/New Line Cinema. Craven wanted a happy ending where the whole movie was a terrible dream, and Shaye wanted a potential franchise and shock ending that indicated Freddy was still alive. The shock ending won out, and New Line Cinema became known as “the house that Freddy built.”
I used to hate the twist ending, feeling that is was cheap and undermined Nancy’s defeat of Freddy. But as I thought about it more, it oddly strengthens the realism of such an otherwise philosophical slasher film, and solidifies Nancy as the most realistic and inspirational final girl.
The sharp contrast from her defeat of Freddy in a dark room to the too bright light of a new morning where her mom is suddenly sober and her friends are all alive reinforce a painful but necessary truth about confronting our problems: we can’t magically fix everything. Sometimes even though we overcome the problem, the damage has already been done. And that while yes, everyday is a new day, a new day isn’t a perfect day where things will just be handed to us.
When we see Nancy again in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, this “shock” ending, which at first seems to undercut her victory, is redeemed. Because Nancy has learned that Freddy could and would try to get her again, she has adapted to this possibility while still becoming a vibrant, functioning person.
“I Used to Be Like Them. I Know What They’re Going Through”: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
In A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Nancy returns. She is now an intern at the Westin Hills Asylum which serves her hometown of Springwood. When a new group of Elm Street teens are being targeted by Freddy, she wastes no time trying to help them fight back. She is the only one who understands first hand what they are going through, and encourages them to use their strengths to defeat Freddy.
We also find out Nancy has been using an experimental dream suppressant called Hypnocil. Like many adults, she has learned to use the resources available to her to process her traumas.
She advocates giving the drug to the teens, knowing all too well how deadly dreams can be if you are being targeted by Freddy. Dr. Neil Gordon initially balks at this, but eventually decides to give it a shot. Unfortunately,Freddy’s attacks escalate so quickly that Nancy and Neil are fired, and instead they have to help the teens fight Freddy to try and defeat him once and for all.
Nancy and the teens seem to win, but Freddy has one last trick for Nancy up his sleeve. He appears in the dream as her estranged father, trying to say goodbye to her before he dies. This is revealed to be Freddy in disguise, who stabs Nancy to death with his claws. With her dying breathes, she does the same to him, saving Kristen, Joey, and Kincaid.
When Freddy defeats Nancy at the end of the movie, it is a genuine shock. It is treated with reverence that has never been afforded to any other fallen final girl, with Kristen clutching her body in despair and a funeral scene afterwards.
In this film, Nancy shows the importance of moving beyond merely surviving. Until Sidney in the Scream series, this is really the only example of a final girl who returns with the intention of helping others like her, using her newfound strengths and knowledge. Even though it is upsetting Nancy dies, she does so as a true hero who goes from a typical final girl who is just trying to survive to a mentor and role model to the next generation. Nancy shows the importance of not just surviving, but of learning from our mistakes and trying to serve others when we can.
Even though the character died, she still had one last lesson to teach us…and herself.
“If You’re Willing to Play Nancy One Last Time”: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
In Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, actress Heather Langenkamp (the actress who played Nancy) plays a version of herself. The movie is a creative meta commentary on filmmaking. In it, an entity has been released that was formerly contained in the Nightmare series, and it has now taken on Freddy’s persona. The entity haunts Heather because she represents the opposing good force that he would ultimately need to defeat to truly be free. Or alternatively, because he is duplicating what happened in Nightmare because he doesn’t know anything else. The films leaves a lot of strands on interpretation open in this regard.
Heather realizes the events in her life are reflected by a script Wes Craven is currently writing for a new Nightmare movie. When he tries his best to explain the entity, this exchange occurs:
HEATHER Isn't there anyone that can stop him? WES Interestingly enough, in the dreams there is one person. A gatekeeper, so to speak. Someone Freddy's got to get by before he can enter our world. (looks at her) It's you, Heather. HEATHER Me? Why me? WES Dramatically speaking it makes perfect sense. You played Nancy, after all, the first to humiliate and defeat him. HEATHER That was Nancy, not me! WES But it was you that gave Nancy her strength. So to get out he has to come through you. You're gonna have to make a choice. HEATHER Choice? What kind of choice? WES Whether or not you're willing to play Nancy one last time.
Later, she seemingly does play Nancy one last time, calling John Saxon (the actor who played her father in the films) dad, and appearing in her outfit from the original film as she decides to battle the entity. When she enters the entity’s lair she finds a copy of Craven’s new script:
The more she read the more she realized what she had in her hands was nothing more or less than life itself. That everything she had experienced and thought was bound within these pages. There was no movie. There was only…her…life…Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
In the film, Heather’s life is entwined with her portrayal of Nancy nearly a decade ago. She contends with stalkers, fans who take no interest in her as a person, and colleagues who are all too keen to embrace the series and make another movie for their own reasons. All of them have benefitted and grown thanks to the series in ways that she hasn’t, resulting in a bit of alienation between her and the others. After all, everyone knows and reveres Freddy/Robert Englund and Wes Craven, but who reveres Nancy/Heather? Like many viewers, the fictionalized Heather in the film doesn’t fully appreciate Nancy. By the end, she has come to appreciate Nancy, and has merged the essence of Nancy with herself, saving her son in the process.
Like the first film where Nancy must confront her fears head on, Heather must embrace her role as Nancy and face her past firsthand. The movie can be seen as a celebration and acknowledgement of Nancy as a force of good. Even the evil entity which is only using Freddy as a blueprint for its corporal form acknowledges Heather/Nancy as its ultimate rival, bringing the series full circle to the very first film. It explicitly takes the philosophical power of Nancy, and demonstrates how it can be applied to our reality.
But the movie’s most brilliant commentary is about conquering our fears of parenthood, and once again bettering those who come after us. Heather has to learn just like Nancy’s parents couldn’t protect her despite their best efforts, she cannot shield her son Dylan from the boogeymen of the world. Early in the film, Heather reads Hansel and Gretel to Dylan, and keeps expressing her disgust with how violent it is. But Dylan insists she read to the end when the siblings defeat the witch and return safely home. It is important to read to the end because otherwise the story ends with the pervasive fear and none of the cathartic conclusion of good triumphing over evil. This is a contrast to the scene where Heather catches Dylan watching the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. She immediately becomes upset and turns the tv off. After that, Dylan repeatedly lashes out and acts like Freddy Krueger, thus feeding her fears that by exposing Dylan to the movie he is turning violent and evil. When another adult is upset with Heather for “letting” Dylan watching A Nightmare on Elm Street because now he “knows about Freddy”, Heather angrily retorts:
Every kid knows Freddy Krueger! He is like Santa Claus or King Kong.Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
These three threads form a running theme that is realized at the conclusion of the movie, and that theme is the futility of trying to protect children from the knowledge of evil. New Nightmare concludes with Heather and Dylan defeating the entity in the same way Hansel and Gretel defeat the witch. When they return home, Heather begins to read Dylan the script of the movie we just watched and they just lived through. She now understands these stories, and the existence of boogeymen, aren’t the problem. Not helping children navigate them, or worse not giving children the catharsis of knowing good can triumph over evil is the true problem. After all, as Heather states, children already know Freddy Krueger. But they need to know Nancy Thompson. And just as Nancy empowers herself in the first film, she empowers viewers to face their fears and conquer evil.
It would be easy to say Nancy is inspirational simply because she conquers the monster by conquering her own fear, but it is more than that. Nancy shows us a realistic path to defeating obstacles large and small. Throughout the series, she fights against evil even at great personal costs. She is one of the rare final girls to go from being a survivalist to willingly putting herself in danger once again to save others. And even after her character’s death in series, Heather Langenkamp reprises her role one last time, because the character of Nancy has become a greater force of good than anyone could have anticipated. Nancy isn’t a superhero, but she also isn’t a wimp. She is a dynamic, driven character who provides a blueprint for confronting our own problems, and then helping those around us.