Fans of the Slasher subgenre will be familiar with the hero of the movie, “the final girl.” She is the last one standing, the one who can face off against the killer and win. There have been many such “final girls” since Carol J. Clover coined the term in her book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992). Somehow after the killer effortlessly tears through her friends, this innocent young woman is left standing.
What gives her this power? Her friends are usually too busy; engaging in sexual activity, taking drugs, and consuming alcohol, to recognize the threat. So her purity and disinterest in these elicit behaviors make her strong and ready for the battle to come. It’s a flimsy trope, grounded in puritanical ideas, yet it persists in horror. Yet some directors are subverting these themes, like Ti West’s 2022 release X. However, Damien Leone takes it a step further with his final girl in Terrifier 2, Sienna (Lauren LaVera). Sienna is not the puritanical final girl of slashers past, and her character development aligns more with a monomyth, a classic narrative template also known as “The Hero’s Journey.” Sienna is given adventure, an impossible foe, insurmountable odds, and magical tools to aid her on her quest, much like the heroes of classic fantasy stories.
Terrifier (2016) is built entirely around introducing and highlighting the savagery of its slasher, Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton). There are no heroes able to save the day, simply a silent and terrifying killer. Compared to slashers like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, Art the Clown is particularly ruthless. Thanks to Leone’s crafty practical effects, we see Art engage in some of the most gruesome and depraved acts of violence.
From acts of cannibalism to ripping limbs apart, Art is depicted as the worst of the worst. While not fully explained, there appear to be supernatural elements behind why Art returns from the dead at the end of Terrifier. When Terrifier 2 opens, we see that Art has his head bashed in and is missing an eye, but he still has enough strength to come back from the dead and kill a nearby coroner. One thing is clear, with this incredible power he possesses, we need a final girl to harness incredible power to battle this monster. This is where the development of Sienna’s “hero’s journey” sets the background for her mythological ability to fight off this evil.
“The Hero’s Journey” is an early narrative structure that became a major focus for the writer Joseph Campbell. While Campbell introduced the concept in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), The concept dates back to research that anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor did in 1871 when he noticed similar storytelling structures present throughout various cultures. These were often the tales of mythological heroes doing battle against various, powerful antagonists. As described in his book the structure of these stories is “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Campbell goes on to describe twelve different steps in these stories in which the character goes from having an ordinary life to being presented with an adventure and finding trials, allies, and villains along the way. Coming out the other side as a “hero.” Campbell was heavily influenced by psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who posed the idea of a “collective unconscious” that connected all of humanity, therefore explaining the similarities in stories across cultures that had no way of interacting.
This story is seen through decades of movies, with one of the more popular examples being George Lucas’s Star Wars. However, we do not often see this present in horror movies, and even less so in slashers. Yet Leone’s decision to blend the slasher with the hero’s journey gives his final girl more agency within the movie. Sienna does not come out as a shell-shocked survivor like classic final girls, she is a blood-soaked hero aligning more with an Amazonian goddess than a traumatized young girl. While Sienna does not go through all twelve steps of the hero’s journey, the truncated version of her adventure allows the movie to add more traditional horror elements to the story. Like the heroes of Greek mythology, she faces impossible odds to stand up to the foe she is destined to battle and comes out the other side victorious.
The first step of her journey is the “Ordinary World,” where we meet the hero the storyteller wants us to identify with. Sienna is introduced as an artistically gifted and intelligent woman who is grappling with the recent death of her father. We learn that her father recently passed away in an accident related to a malignant tumor. The whole family is coping with his death, and while we never see him, you can feel the ghost of their father hanging over the entire house.
Their mother looks to forget while trying to keep their family afloat. Her brother Jonathan (Elliott Fullam) delves into dark and depraved media stories. He is hyper-fixated on Art, who has disappeared since the events in Terrifier. Something that disturbs Sienna and makes her question her brother’s interest in these vial acts. Meanwhile, Sienna works to pay homage to her father’s work. Since her father was an artist, she works to recreate one of his characters, a warrior woman who bears a striking resemblance to Sienna. All seems ordinary enough for a family steeped in grief, but the danger is not far away.
In the next stage of her journey, she receives her “Call to Adventure,” In this stage, the hero is posed with a challenge that will set them on their quest. Sienna gets her call in the form of premonitions she begins to have on the eve of Halloween. Dreams and visions of Art plague her. She has a nightmare in which she is at the “Clown Cafe” where Art comes and mows down everyone around her, and a fire begins to spread around them. She pulls a sword from a box of cereal, and it is enough to wake her up before Art goes in for the final blow. When she awakes we see that the wings for her costume are on fire and the fire engulfs much of her bedroom, except for the sword that her father gave her which was miraculously unharmed even though it was placed next to where the fire started. Sienna tries to rationalize what she sees as just a dream but she is confronted by reminders of what she saw and an unshakeable sense of dread that sends her into a panic attack. In this modern world, supernatural signs are easy to write off as imagination, so she simply tries to forget.
This begins her stage of “Refusing the Call,” in which our hero decides to refuse the task presented to them. While she has an innate sense that something is wrong, she pushes down that intuition out of her fear and the influences of those close to her. She tries to explain the situation to her friend Allie (Casey Hartnett), who insists that it is all in her head. Allie even blames it on the mood-stabilizing drugs Sienna was prescribed. Sienna is looking for guidance — either someone to believe her or someone to convince her that it is all in her head — yet neither is satisfying. She will either be wrong and considered crazy by those around her, or she is right, and she must face off against a violent killer clown. Even when she is confronted with him in a costume store and can sense the terror that comes over her in his presence, she simply writes it off. She has even more of a reason to refuse the call when she hears that her brother also saw Art, and in her attempt to protect him and convince herself, she tells him it was probably someone in a costume.
Typically the hero needs a mentor or guide on these journeys. They are the person who believes in the hero’s ability to fight off the impending evil and give them insight when all they want to do is run. Sienna’s brother Jonathan ends up playing that role in the movie. We learn that his fascination with Art is because he found a drawing of the clown in his father’s notebook, drawn shortly before his death. His investigation leads him to believe that his father received premonitions about what was to come and that he believed Sienna was the only one who could stop it. He reminds her of the costume she is making and how it shows her holding the decapitated head of Art.
Unfortunately for Jonathan, being the younger brother, he can’t get through to Sienna. Her need to protect him causes her to rationalize the information he presents her with. She cannot believe that she is this mythical being her father drew, or that she has the power to save them from evil if it is coming their way. Even if their father was there, his illness and the way it affected him would also make it impossible for them to believe.
The narrative diverges from the hero’s journey a bit to highlight the film’s Slasher elements. Dressed in her armor, Sienna looks like the hero we have been waiting for, but she still believes she is just in a costume. She leaves behind her sword and goes to the party while Art wreaks havoc — going after her friend Allie, Allie’s mother, Sienna’s mother, and then captures Jonathan. Sienna tries to have fun, she drinks and dances and her friend even spikes her drink with molly but their night is cut short when visions of “The Pale Girl,” Art’s first victim, comes after her and leaves her crumpled up and screaming on the dance floor. While this takes away from the traditional hero’s journey, it does serve as an important part of the film to highlight how Sienna subverts final girl tropes. She can be both the fun party girl, and the loving daughter. She can be damaged and also save the day. Sienna breaks the shackles of the final girl trope and is free to be herself. In all of her imperfections, she can still be a hero.
This night out represents the “trials, allies, and enemies” portion of the journey. This is where she tests her strength, and intuition, to see who is on her side in the coming battle. Her friend Brooke (Kailey Hyman) is shown to be a hindrance to Sienna’s journey because she spikes Sienna’s drink with drugs. When Sienna breaks down on the dancefloor, Brooke shows little empathy or understanding for what Sienna is going through. She writes Sienna off as crazy and when Sienna receives a panicked call from her brother who is in danger, Brooke thinks he is pulling a prank. Through it all, Sienna becomes stronger and more self-assured in her goal of saving Jonathan.
Thus enters the “Approach to the Inmost Cave” portion of the hero’s journey. This represents the place and or person the hero needs to face off against. In Sienna’s case, this means being lured to “The Terrifier,” a haunted attraction at the fair. She believes she is there to pick up her brother, but unbeknownst to her, Art is waiting for their showdown. It becomes clear that something is not quite right, and that those she loves might be in great danger. She is scared as she comes down from her night of partying, but she is also unafraid when it comes to protecting her people.
This is where Sienna’s “Ordeal” begins. This is the moment the final battle begins and good and evil finally face off. She is confronted by Art, who has captured her brother and killed her friends. While she has denied she’s strong enough to be a hero, she sees Art attack her brother and lunges at him. We see that she possesses a similar strength as Art, she is constantly beaten down but gets back up every time to continue the fight. Whether she has completely accepted it or not, this is her destiny, and it is the only way to save Jonathan. However, after numerous rounds with Art, he finally kills her by picking up her sword and stabbing her in the gut. Sienna falls into a deep, dark, bottomless pit and there seems to be no way out.
Here she enters into her “Resurrection” portion of the journey where the hero faces off against death and comes out the other side, reborn and stronger than ever. After being dropped into the pit, Sienna awakens to find herself stuck in a dunk tank full of water. She is pulled further down into the darkness by the “9th Circle Demons.” If she fails, she will meet her end and join the demons in the pits of hell. However, the moment she thinks she is going to die, her sword begins to glow and give off a power that heals her wounds. Her health is renewed and her sense of purpose. This allows her to claw her way out of the pit and confront Art one more time to cut off his head and defeat him. Like Perseus cutting off and holding up Medusa’s head, Sienna victoriously holds the head of Art, earning her the status of hero in her story.
"I’m not courageous, I’m not brave, I had a panic attack today."
Sienna wins the battle, but perhaps not the war — this is horror after all and Leone has plans for another installment of the franchise. There are more questions to be answered and fights to be fought, but like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Sienna has risen victorious and become a true hero. She was given many opportunities to give up and abandon her cause, but she continued to fight to save her brother and fulfill the prophecy her father believed in.
Early in the film, she says, “I’m not courageous, I’m not brave, I had a panic attack today,” but those things don’t matter when danger is on her doorstep. She becomes one of the first true mythological final girls, but she does it on her terms. She does not have to be a symbol of morality like the final girls before her, she can be the person she wants to be and still has the power to fight her foes.
By combining the hero’s journey with the power of the final girl, Leone finds a balance between fantasy and horror. He also crafts a “final woman,” who is not tied to outdated morals to be powerful. Even Sienna’s costume — the golden warrior — harkens back to Greecian and Amazonian styles, like Hercules or Xena. She gets to be beautiful, strong, and empowered. While she could have been styled like the girls of slashers past. Her outfit makes a statement that she is a woman and a hero. Through the hero’s journey, we can empathize with Sienna’s struggle and connect it to the universal themes of the journey that have been so important to storytellers from all over the world.
Tori Potenza is a queer critic and academic based in Philadelphia. Tori is a writer with bylines in MovieJawn and Hear Us Scream. Much of their work focuses on sex and gender themes in films, with a particular focus on the horror genre.