My Mother, The Final Girl
Laurie Strode. Nancy Thompson. Kirsty Cotton. Sidney Prescott. All Final Girls. They’re all smart, all of them capable. They’re survivors.
But I know another one that perhaps some people don’t. Also smart, also capable, also a survivor.
The Final Girl is the last one standing. She is the last line of defense, the one who survives by her insistence, her persistence, by her headstrong capabilities. She’s smart and resourceful and, more often than not, finds a way to survive. She is the one, as Carol J. Glover in her seminal book Men, Women, and Chainsaws describes her, who “…perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and her own peril.”
Laurie Strode and Nancy Thompson have battled their nemeses through multiple sequels and reboots. Sidney Prescott has fought Ghostface for decades, never knowing who was under the mask. But my mother fought the same nemesis for 23 years. Every day a hastily written sequel, every storyline the same.
For the longest time a monster lived in our house.
It entered the rooms we were sat in and drove in the same car we rode in. When it slept we would try to keep quiet; when it was quiet we would grow tense. Like Walter in the Boys Do Get Bruised segment from Tales from the Hood, the monster was close to home.
We lived in fear. The atmosphere was thick and oppressive like fog, lingering in every room, in every moment. We never knew when the next hit would come, when the next explosion would appear. We would look out for one another, making sure we knew where the others were at all times.
The house always seemed to be changing. We would find new holes in the walls, more furniture overturned, missing that used to be there. Everything was always in flux.
So we lived in the in-between moments, the calm before the storm. We learned to hold ourselves in, to make ourselves small. We learned to render ourselves invisible to get through the day unscathed. But all the while we would feel our lives steadily tightening, building, accumulating pressure, until the house began to hum with the threat of what was to come.
Sometimes it grew unbearable. When the hum was at its loudest we could feel the tension on our skin and in our blood. We would feel that mounting pressure and want to rip at our skin, to tear ourselves apart. Sometimes we wouldn’t be able to stand it. We’d want something to happen, anything, just to relieve the tension we felt, the uncertainty. And after it was over, after that outburst finally did come and one of us was in pain, when there was a new hole in the house, when there was fresh food thrown over the walls or in our faces, I would cry quietly and whisper words directed at my father—hate you, I hate you, I hate you. I’d wish that someone would hear them and come and save us.
Then I’d look at my mother and I would see the anger in her eyes, the hurt, the pain, the guilt. I would watch her while she put herself in harm’s way, while she tried to shield us, using the only true weapon she really had—her love for her children.
Before the first act of outright violence took place, my mother says she sees now that the abuse started way before that. It took on a more subtle hue, but it was just as nefarious. It somehow got into the unguarded places in her life, trickling in like water.
She remembers my father doing things for her, telling her she didn’t need to go out, she didn’t need to trouble herself. She remembers him slowly taking over the day-to-day, restricting her without her noticing, all under the guise of altruism. A slow, gentle squeezing of her life.
Until over time that help became twisted. She remembers him making her feel guilt any time she wanted to go outside, to see someone else, whenever she wanted to do something on her own. She remembers him making her feel paranoid, making her question her beliefs, her feelings, her reactions. Remembers him manipulating her thoughts of her friends and her family, cutting her off from them until she felt small enough that she could only rely on him alone. Her autonomy was gone, her whole being, her whole life shrunk down to the size of a pinhead. A steady grooming and eventual sawing of the self, of the soul.
When my parents were asleep, I would watch horror movies and the monsters wouldn’t seem otherworldly to me. The fear, the pain, the suffering they caused, I understood all of it. And watching these horror movies I would see the final girls. I would watch Ginny and Sidney and Laurie and sometimes would wonder why my mother couldn’t be like them. Why she couldn’t be a final girl? Why she couldn’t leave and take us with her? It wouldn’t be fighting but so what! And then I’d feel guilty for wanting my mother to be someone other than what she was.
And then I would think of scenes from the movie we were trapped in. I would think of watching my father strangling my mother in front of me and going into a panic, thinking she would die. I’d remember him grabbing my sister’s hair and dragging her up the stairs while she screamed. I would remember him throwing me into the kitchen door and lying on the floor, wishing I could crawl inside the world and disappear.
In these moments I would wish I could be the one to kill him. That I could do something, that I could set us free.
I’d imagine ways of doing it and I would feel the release it gave me imagining them. I could be one of the Final Girls. I’d vanquish the monster and save my family. But then, invariably, the real world would creep back in. I’d feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of possibility that existed in front of me. I would think of the pressure I was putting on myself and grow scared. Then I’d grow angry at myself for being weak, for being a child. I would grow angry at myself for not being able to protect everyone. And I would grow angry at the world and want someone, anyone, to take the decision away from me.
At one point in Scream, Ghostface asks Sidney if she likes scary movies, to which she responds “What’s the point? They’re all the same.” There’s always some girl “…running upstairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.”
But it’s not the same when the villain isn’t trying to break in, but instead lives with you. My mother would run up the stairs to protect her children. She’d have to lock us in and wait for the storm to blow over. The outside wasn’t an option because where could she go? The outside felt too large for one woman and her kids. Everything she loved, everything that was hers was in the house, along with everything she feared. Eventually, she knew she’d have to come back.
The final girl is usually in opposition to the monster because the monster stays the monster. Their roles are set. But there would be times when my father would cease to be a monster and become something else. He would become the man she loved, our father. What could my mother do but lower her guard? We all would. We would all have hope for the future. So she would put her hatred down and quietly ask us to do the same.
These would be moments that felt earned. That we’d all earned. When we all laughed or went on drives or sat and watched films together. The good times were enough for us to think that perhaps things could be different. It never occurred to me think that the ratio was skewed; the negative far outweighed the positive. And I wouldn’t think of him as a monster in those times but as my dad. And I would feel bad for wanting him gone and wishing him dead. In these moments I would feel guilty and shameful for thinking that I wanted to kill him, and that I was somehow I was as wicked as he was for thinking these things.
When he was always so sorry I would grow sympathetic toward him. I would feel sorry for him and want no harm to come to him. And I would wonder who was the real person behind my father’s face. Was it my father or was it the monster? It never occurred to me until later that they were both. And it never occurred to me until later that this was all part of it; that this was all part of the cycle of abuse.
The question that comes after is always the same: why did you stay with him? My mother heard it so many times afterward.
As if it’s as simple as that. But nothing is ever as simple as that. We all think we have the capacity to say I wouldn’t stand for that; that wouldn’t happen to me. Of course, we do; we have to. We can’t imagine being manipulated and controlled until we’re lost. We’re better than that and we wouldn’t stand for it. But, unfortunately, all of us have the potential to be ground down. We all have to potential to become compromised.
When the abuse happens you tell yourself that it isn’t them, that it was only that one time. That the person you love, the person you’ve known all your life, that isn’t them. You make excuses for them—it’s something other, that’s the monster inside them. You believe them when they say it won’t happen again. And you hope and start to believe that this time will be the last time, even though this time and the time after are always the last time.
But sometimes, in those quiet moments, maybe you think about leaving. You think about taking your kids and running. But what stops you? You think of what they said, that if you leave they’ll kill themselves, that they’ll kill you, that they’ll track you down and kill your children. Then you think of other things; you think of your kids without a parent, you think of your friends judging you, you think of the mortgage, the house. Your whole life is so messy, so entangled. You worry what the kids will think of you, who they’ll side with. And you often find yourself thinking the problem just might be you.
But you also worry about what will happen after, the unknown. Because you know this reality, even if it’s chaos. You’re used to it, you’ve learned to navigate it as best you can. But the unknown is something else. You have no idea what waits on the other side.
So you stay.
The moment that prompted my father to finally leave happened one night in April. I woke up to screaming and for a moment I didn’t know where I was. Then I heard my mother scream again and I got up. I stood on the landing and stared into my parents’ bedroom. Through the open door, I saw my mother sitting up in bed and my father standing at the window. My mother was shouting and my father was crying. But I couldn’t understand what was happening.
“I wasn’t going to do it,” I heard my father say. “I never would’ve done it.”
Later I found out that my mother woke up to find my father pointing his rifle at her. He had put the rifles in the car the day before for reasons he couldn’t explain. He waited for her to go to sleep and then stood over her and aimed at her head. I don’t know how long he had stood there contemplating. I have no idea what would’ve happened if she hadn’t woken up. What other rooms my father might have visited after hers.
After that, things happened pretty quickly. The police were called. We watched him taken away. I remember my father looking at me as he was taken away and asking why she was doing this to him. Suddenly my father was gone and it was just us. It was like a weight had been lifted. We could finally breathe. We had been set free. And yet we didn’t know how to feel.
My mother doesn’t feel like a Final Girl. Sometimes she will feel guilt and the heaviness of the years lost. She’ll wonder if those people asking her why she didn’t leave had a point. She is glad she left and that she managed to get out. But she still feels trapped by the echoes of the abuse that haunt her.
In Halloween (2018), iconic Final Girl Laurie Strode is haunted by the memories of that fateful night 40 years ago. My mother is the same. She has PTSD which often sends her reeling back to events. She is full of memories, all of them jostling inside her for attention. Sometimes the present can feel like something transient and the past something completely tangible. In each visceral moment, she will be there. She’s able to smell the food being thrown at her, hear the phone being ripped off the wall, feel the piece of wood connecting with her mouth.
Marnie Watson in Eric Red’s 100 Feet deals with the ghost of her abusive husband. It’s a fine analogy because that’s what abuse does, even after it supposedly ends. It doesn’t just stop. It reverberates and ripples.
After my father was gone, my mother saw and felt my father everywhere like a ghost. She couldn’t sleep. She heard him in every creek of the house, every shout, every footstep, every dropped plate.
We all felt like it to varying degrees. We’d hear his voice in the quiet moments and in the things that we said to each other. We saw him everywhere we looked, felt him in every moment. Sometimes we felt him more than when he’d actually lived there.
I would wake up in a panic thinking it was all a dream and that somehow my father was still living with us. I would have to check to make sure we were fine, that we could finally relax. I’d repeatedly ask my mother if she was going to take him back, terrified that she would.
My mother would worry about other things. What happened if he came back? What happened if she went out and bumped into him? Would he kill her? Would he come while we were asleep, while we were powerless? Did he have a key?
But there were also other days when the house felt unwieldy and too big without him. We spent days feeling confused and guilty because we loved him still, or as close to an approximate of love that we could feel, and we missed him. And I would worry that my mother would let him back in, that it would all be for nothing and it would start all over again.
These were strange times and they had a strange power over us. It felt like our father still had a hold on us even though he wasn’t there. Haunting us, his fingerprints all over the house, his hands still grasped hold of our lives.
But that was then.
Through it all, my mother has withstood. She protected us during the times of my father’s outbursts. She went through the courts and had to face him again in rooms full of strangers. She’s struggled with her own mental health. She has blamed herself for not leaving sooner, for not being stronger. She has thought of ending it all.
But she has found a way through. She hasn’t been a damsel in distress. She’s been resilient and refused to back down.
Like Marnie Watson, like Cecilia Kass, like the Final Girls before her, she managed to turn the tables and get free of her abuser. Like Wendy Torrance, she finally managed to escape the confines of a haunted structure that had the appearance of a happy home. Every abused house is a version of the Overlook Hotel; cut off from the world, engulfed in stormy weather, and haunted by ghosts. It will try to keep you there, a prisoner, forever. Until you wrench your autonomy back. Until you escape for the sake of you and your children.
She never let him back in.
In the horror, the final girl exerts her will. She’s proactive. But my mother resisted. She survived long enough for the monster to hang himself. We’ll never know how close we came to disaster. Perhaps he was telling the truth. Perhaps he never would’ve done it. We’ll never know.
You all know Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson, Kirsty Cotton, and Sidney Prescott.
Now it’s time for you to know Annie Stone: Final Girl. Survivor. Mother.