AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Since it's the Halloween season, I'm going to start this segment with a few names you might recognize - Michael, Freddy, Jason - the classic horror movie killers. Now, how about Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson, Alice Hardy? Well, these are the names of the women, the fictional characters, who are targeted in those films.
Laurie Strode is the main character played by Jamie Lee Curtis in the "Halloween" franchise. Nancy Thompson is the teenager haunted by Freddy Krueger in her dreams in "Nightmare On Elm Street." And Alice Hardy had the misfortune to be a counselor at Camp Crystal Lake. Spoiler alert - she's the lone survivor at the end of the first "Friday The 13th" movie but dies early on in the sequel. All of those characters and slasher movies in general have intrigued author Grady Hendrix since he was a kid.
GRADY HENDRIX: I really wanted to think, what would happen if the worst thing that could happen to you had happened when you were 17, and you lived in the shadow of that for the rest of your life? And that sort of sent me down this rabbit hole.
CORNISH: And that trip down the rabbit hole resulted in Hendrix's book "The Final Girl Support Group."
HENDRIX: A final girl is simply the woman who survives till the end of the horror movie.
CORNISH: So his book operates on the premise that those women are real people who, long after the credits have rolled, are still trying to put their lives back together. To do that, six of them meet up for group therapy. Lynnette Tarkington is one of them. And a brief warning here - this is going to be a conversation about horror films, and so some of the language will be graphic.
Tell us about the hero, so to speak. She is a, quote-unquote, "final girl." She's survived what kind of assault?
HENDRIX: I wanted each final girl to sort of be iconic for a different franchise - and a franchise that we all know, even if we're not horror fans. I think everyone knows, oh, the summer camp killer, oh, you know, the guy who killed people in their dreams. And Lynnette is out of that really bottom-of-the-barrel genre of slasher movies from the '80s, the Christmas slasher - "Silent Night, Deadly Night." "Black Christmas" is one of those. And so Lynnette was - a guy dressed as Santa Claus broke into her house on Christmas Eve and impaled her on a rack of antlers. And she has lived with that ever since.
And that was always a thing that really fascinated me about final girls is the ultimate faceless killer they can't escape is the forces of market capitalism. There's always a sequel. So even if you survive Part I and II, they're going to get you in Part III. And there's something terrible about that to me, that you never get to let your guard down. What if there's a sequel? What if there's a reboot of the franchise? And that, to me, is harrowing. I can't imagine living like that.
And it's funny. Someone said to me, so you take this sort of jump into fantasy with this world where there are these entertainment franchises based on murder. And I was like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Let's run down a list of actors who've won Academy Awards for portraying real-life murderers. We live in a culture based on murder. We make TV shows about it. We make books about it. We love murder. We can't look away. I don't know what to make of that, if it's good or bad, but it is such a part of our culture.
CORNISH: You talk about a culture that is, as you said, obsessed with violence and obsessed with the people who impose the violence, but not the victims. So how did you think about the appetites of fans - and male fans, right? - 'cause you're coming to this as - like, as a man who is drawn to the genre. And the book really does seem to raise some questions about what's behind that appetite.
HENDRIX: Right. And, you know, one of the places this book came from is me realizing that, as a 48-year-old dude, I love horror movies. I've watched them all my life. And so I've spent 40 years watching people get murdered for my viewing pleasure, and that's weird. Like, is that healthy? Is that not healthy? What does that mean? And so every book I write, I'm trying to sort of wrestle with some question. The reader doesn't need to know, but it's the question that gets my butt in the chair every day.
And with this book, that was really like, what is this coming from? And what I realized is the movies that I keep coming back to, they're the ones with final girls in them. They're the ones where people manage to escape, the ones where people manage to get somewhere better. And there is something really reassuring about seeing the worst possible thing happen to someone, and they survive.
CORNISH: One of the things that startled me when I was reading it is that even though I'm reading the story of characters who are traumatized, scared and clearly have PTSD - right? - have taken all kinds of unusual security measures in their life as a result of what they've survived - but there were some aspects of the way that they would think that I was like, well, that doesn't seem so strange; that's how you stay safe.
CORNISH: And I don't know if that's generational or what that means. But as a male writer, like, how did you think about that?
HENDRIX: It's just treating them like people and trying to think through logically how these women would be living in the wake of what's happened to them.
CORNISH: Did you ever think, what's wrong with us as men?
HENDRIX: Oh, sure.
CORNISH: Do you know what I mean? - 'cause you had to get into the mind of the killers also to write this book...
CORNISH: ...And people who treat women as objects to be collected or harmed. I mean, it's really dark.
HENDRIX: Yeah. And it's interesting because the actual killers I had to think like in the book, who are the ones sort of hunting these final girls, their issue derives so much from rage and anger at this. And I think you can't be alive in the world and not notice that we become very angry with some women for weird reasons. You know, you look at Hillary Clinton. You look at someone like Lorena Bobbitt back in the '90s. You look at these women, and you think, where is this rage coming from? What is this lesson our press, us, we are trying to teach them? It's so strange. So that was a very easy mindset to get into because it's one I see around me a lot, this anger at women who don't do as they're told.
CORNISH: Before I let you go, I want to talk about sort of how this trope, so to speak, has evolved. Who are the final girls of today, so to speak? I mean, has there been any sort of shift in the approach in storytelling?
HENDRIX: Sure. I mean, there absolutely has. And one of the things that's really interesting is to see sort of the final girl of today, who's cut from a very different mold. She's more of a Buffy or a Xena or a Furiosa in "Mad Max: Fury Road." She is a woman who shows up ready to rock and roll. She can hold her own physically. She comes out of the box completely loaded for bear and ready to rumble. And that's a lot of fun to watch.
But the final girls that I love are the ones from the '70s and the '80s, who were just people. They weren't particularly smart or strong or anything. They survived not because they had some exceptional quality or some ability to kick butt. They survived just because they kept going. They just kept finding enough to take one more step, to climb up on one more rooftop, to hold one more door shut. And that, to me, is so inspiring.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CARPENTER'S "HALLOWEEN KILLS (MAIN TITLE)")
CORNISH: Grady Hendrix is the author of "The Final Girl Support Group." Thank you so much for talking with us.
HENDRIX: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CARPENTER'S "HALLOWEEN KILLS (MAIN TITLE)")
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