When one imagines a horror movie Final Girl, the faces of Sidney Prescott, Laurie Strode, and Ellen Ripley are likely to be some of the first to come up. Brandy’s Karla Wilson, the name many cite as the first Black Final Girl they saw, is one of few Black women who make it to the end credits.
The exclusive club of Final Girls has had a major problem across books and films: race. Witnessing a revitalized appreciation for the horror genre that has bled off screen and onto the page, several Black authors in the YA space are ensuring that the face of the Final Girl in literature is more reflective of the world and creating the Black Final Girls they’ve always hoped to see.
Far and Few Between
Despite the genre’s wide-reaching appeal across media, horror’s track record regarding its treatment of Black characters has been less than stellar. So much so that the regularity of killing off Black characters has become known as the “Black guy dies first” trope and extends to Black female characters as well.
“We never really saw ourselves and we got used to not seeing ourselves,” said Desiree S. Evans, co-editor with Saraciea J. Fennell of the forthcoming YA anthology The Black Girl Survives in This One (Flatiron, Apr. 2024). “Sometimes we were the sassy best friend or, of course, one of the characters who died first, but we had to separate this idea of who horror was apparently for versus knowing that, for all that we loved it, we still weren’t there in the genre.”
Whether a Black character was killed off first (Jada Pinkett Smith in Scream 2), sacrificed themselves in order to save a white peer (Kelly Rowland in Freddy vs. Jason), or simply not included in the film at all, the message to young Black horror fans was clear: Black characters don’t make it to the end.
“It just showed me how Black people in horror have always been the underdog, in the cinematic space and in the literature space,” said Lisa Springer, debut author of YA horror novel There’s No Way I’d Die First (Delacorte). “It made me question, why aren’t there more of us? Why don’t we get to be the one taking the final stand? Why doesn’t the Black girl get to be the one to hop over the dead bodies to get all the way to the top?”
Kalynn Bayron, a longtime horror fan (she cites Sidney Prescott as her favorite Final Girl) and author of You’re Not Supposed to Die Tonight (Bloomsbury), cites how a similar experience investigating the genre’s lack of Black characters in film led her to a search for Black characters in books. That experience led her to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and shifted her perception of how Black people can be centered in the literature that’s meant to haunt us.
“There was a realization that there was a place for us and our own kind of cultural identities to intersect with horror as a genre, and with scary stories in general,” Bayron said. “Then I went looking to find that representation and did not find a ton of it—until recently.”
A New Generation of Black Final Girls
Bayron is referring to the boom in horror that has taken over our screens and books, including in YA literature. Young people want to be scared, and finding books featuring Black Final Girls is not quite as difficult today as it was for Bayron, thanks to the many authors who are giving a much-needed refresh to the genre. The new generation of Black Final Girls are tackling a myriad of troubles, on top of trying to survive the night.
In Jessica Lewis’s Monstrous (Delacorte, Sept. 12), Black newcomer Latavia faces off against her entire town when she is selected to be the sacrifice to an ancient monster. As frightening as the ordeal would be for anyone, Latavia also questions how being a Black woman makes her a seemingly more acceptable sacrifice to this town full of white people.
“She’s like, ‘Why me? Why did you pick the Black girl who has no family?’ ” Lewis said. “ ‘Why am I less valuable than somebody else who’s in this town, who knew what they were signing up for? Why is my future less important than yours?’ ”
Horror fiction often acts as a mirror for fragments of reality that have the power to overcome us, blown into larger, more epic proportions. And for the Black girls in these predicaments, race can play a part in who and what they can trust.
In Bayron’s You’re Not Supposed to Die Tonight, the group of teens running a horror simulation camp led by literally professional Final Girl Charity consider how race comes into play when a white woman wielding a gun shows up at the camp, and the teens note that calling for the police doesn’t equate to getting to safety.
“My characters’ identities absolutely informed the way that they see the world and how they approach this specific issue they run into,” Bayron said. “With those [racial] dynamics, I was thinking a lot about how my characters responded to those threats. They’re thinking about having to save themselves from a masked killer in the woods, but also thinking about who they can call to protect them. And for them, it really comes down to each other.”
Adina Walker, the protagonist of Joelle Wellington’s debut Their Vicious Games (S&S), finds herself with few prospects for her future and enters the Finish, a brutal competition for young women of promise who, if victorious, will earn the favor of the powerful Remington family. Many of the competitors don’t shy away from cutthroat violence in the name of winning, but as the only Black competitor, Adina “knows she cannot take that position at all, because she’s never going to be perceived as good enough or good at all.”
How she is perceived, by competitors and by the Remington family, becomes a part of Adina’s strategy throughout the game; she recognizes that she can’t play into stereotypes as a competitor, nor can she avoid being tokenized by the Remingtons.
“Those instincts of Adina being like, ‘Oh, I, as a Black woman, will never fit into the expectation and mold that white supremacy has for me’ means that she has to operate on a different level to get through this,” Wellington said. “Her journey through the novel is understanding ‘I will never be enough [to these people] and so I just want to get what’s mine.’ ”
The pressures hounding Noelle, the high-achieving Black girl in There’s No Way I’d Die First, stem from the “the ‘work twice as hard for half as much’ [sentiment].” Springer said. That notion drives Noelle to succeed, in both her pursuit of high social standing and her ability to keep her friends safe when an axe-wielding clown begins terrorizing her party.
“Noelle feels like she must excel at everything,” Springer said. “When I talk about survivability, there’s always the struggle, even if the struggle is [within] yourself. A lot of that struggle also comes from the expectations of others, and this subconscious need to prove that stereotypes are wrong.”
Being a Black Final Girl is not a singular experience; each girl takes a unique path to survival, and creates their own definitions of what it means to survive. Yet being a Black woman does offer these characters specific insights into how they must move through the world differently.
“Every room we walk into, the way we navigate the world, it’s about our survival, because we already know what we’re up against,” said Fennell, co-editor of The Black Girl Survives in This One. “We go through so much already, especially Black girls and Black women, and then to be thrown into this horror thing…. I’m like, ‘You better believe we’re gonna freakin’ survive!’ ”
The Message in Surviving
As more Black girls continue to take center stage in the YA horror arena, writers recognize that placing Black girls in positions to empower themselves can communicate to young readers their courage and value.
“So often, Black girls are really hard on themselves because of the very narrow expectations of what an acceptable Black woman looks like,” Wellington said. “I really want the Black girls who read this book to feel like they don’t need to be a certain way to survive. There is no earning the life that you deserve. You just deserve it, because you’re alive.”
Black Final girls can also offer readers a beacon of hope, reminding readers they’re capable of overcoming any obstacle in front of them, whether it be a killer in the woods or everyday struggles.
“I feel like it’s an important message to show that we are strong enough to survive,” Springer said. “That you are smart enough, and you can find a way out. When it comes to Black people, we’ve been saving ourselves for so long. I want to show that you can have hope, and you can come away from reading about a scary experience, but still feel uplifted by the fact that you get to celebrate with the main character being the last one standing.”
Fennell similarly noted how identifying with a Final Girl prioritizes joy, despite what they’ve lived through. “At the end, they’re like, ‘I still survived everything that I went through. I fought to enjoy this joy,’ ” she said.
Black authors and their Black Final Girls are invested in shifting Black characters from victims into the heroes of their own stories. “I think the beautiful thing about having Black writers writing Black characters, and particularly in speculative genres, where so much is about defeating these bad things that happened to us, is coming out of this darkness,” Evans said. “And finally, we too can survive. We too can be the thing that helps save our communities.”
What Comes Next
Authors are looking forward to what comes next in the horror genre, and the future of Black horror and its Black Final Girls seems bright.
“I just want to see more Black everything,” Lewis said. “Black vampires, Black werewolves, Black mummies. I want all your retellings, and I want Black characters to be in it, because we never got our time.”
Getting chased through the woods, whether by a human entity or not, might not be one’s idea of an ideal evening, but for young fans of horror, the desire for more of these frightening tales featuring happy endings for its Black characters continues to grow. “Yes, some horrible things happened in the book, not everyone gets to walk away. But you still feel that triumph. At the end, you know, when you close the book, and you want to read another horror, because you want to feel that again.” Springer said.
As authors continue to craft their gory tales, they advocate for not being treated as a momentary trend, but for Black Final Girls to be a mainstay on bookshelves. “We deserve 10,000 Black Final Girls,” Evans said. “Keep publishing Black stories. That’s the only way we will have a lasting impact, if our books exist.”