I have to do math to remember what year my father died. I am 38, the same age as my mother when she had me; he was 48. Like the stubborn Taurus he was, my father stayed alive until the month after his 75th birthday as one last “fuck you” to a world that had never been that hospitable to him—not as a short Jew in Chicago growing up during the Depression; nor as a teenager with pre-Salk polio; and certainly not as a seemingly hearty senior citizen whose ever-present sneakers belied the cancer metastasizing inside him. So, he would have been 86 by now, I think. I think.
Grief resonates and communicates, and the loss of a parent when you’re young has a different timbre than other losses. It is actually pretty similar to the “ch-ch-ch-ch-ah-ah-ah-ah” that is the Pavlov’s whistle for kids who grew up under the murderous gaze of Freddie and Jason and Michael Myers. Although you know these movies aren’t real, that they shouldn’t scare you anymore, there is still something deeper and darker inside that responds with a thrilled sort of fear every time. I am ashamed that I stay in bed on the anniversary of my dad’s death—even if, at the same time, I write about his loss for the perusal of others, like an itch I can’t scratch.
My guts lurched with recognition when I saw the Final Girls at a screening in New York last summer. Although I wasn’t the only one sniffling in the dark by the time the credits rolled, my fascination with this film was somehow different. I was not prepared for exactly how much I would cry during the Final Girls—a hybrid horror-comedy that winkingly subverts the tropes of slasher films—or why.
In the Final Girls, the protagonist Max (Taissa Farmiga) is still a teenager when her mother, a former scream-queen horror movie star named Amanda (Malin Akerman), dies in a car crash. Yet, through the magic of the movies, Max gets the opportunity to see her once more: When a fire in a theater forces Max and her pals to cut a hole through a movie screen to escape, they end up in the slasher movie that made Amanda famous. The appearance of Max and her friends in the world of Camp Bloodbath tears the horror film's entire storyline asunder—primarily because Max stops her mom’s character Nancy from having sex with a stereotypically scummy dude, an act that saves her but spells doom for the "Final Girl" (the smart, bookish, virginal girl that always manages to outwit, outrun, or outlive the monsters at the center of 1980s slasher films).
As the resident horror nerd (Thomas Middleditch) in the film explains, someone has to be the Final Girl and kill Billy, the movie's undead lumbering monster, for the credits to roll. Max is the only virgin left—except for Nancy, thanks to Max’s machinations. Would it be possible for Max to save her friends and Nancy? Can there be two Final Girls? You can see the gears in Max’s head turning: Would saving Nancy in the movie have a ripple effect in the real world?
Of course, that’s impossible: You can’t mess with the rules of the universe you’re in—not in horror movies, and not in the real world. I'd learned that long ago. I was sad that Max had to learn it too. Most of all, the movie made me sad for myself—for losing my dad when I was technically an adult, but not nearly adult enough.
You can’t mess with the rules of the universe you’re in—not in horror movies, and not in the real world.
The movie riffs on Carol Clover’s "Final Girl" theory. The Final Girl, according to Clover, grows up by confronting the killer, by staring Death in the face and surviving. “When the Final Girl stands at last in the light of day with the knife in her hand,” Clover wrote in Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror, “she has delivered herself into the adult world.” At the beginning of the movie, Max has not yet come into her full Final Girl flower; she sleeps all day and stumbles into the shower, blinking as the water tumbles over her.
Her tears and confusion, the sense that her world had just turned upside down, felt all too familiar to me. A few years after my father died, my grief bowled me over in supermarkets and made me want to toss dishes off my balcony.
For a long time, anything to do with cancer or fathers was off-limits at the movies. After a few years, however, I built up enough emotional scar tissue to watch dark, funny movies like 50/50 and Beginners; my emotions roiled just beneath the surface but I barely cried anymore—that was reserved for therapy. It was a relief to probe the wound in a safe space like a darkened movie theater. I enjoyed the burn just a little bit, like the brace of hydrogen peroxide on the skinned knees I’d sometimes come home with after going for walks and bike rides with dad. I’d bike ahead of him on our bumpy, gravelly street until I’d catch myself in a pothole and fall into a bloody heap of wheels and girl.
In my own ham-handed way, I’ve tried to grapple with this loss in my work. For years, I tried to squeeze dad’s death into fiction, with dismal results. It’s only recently that I’ve started to confront it, head on, in non-fiction. My quest for catharsis through writing has led me to other people who have survived similar losses and written, or created, something about it. I have been looking for other members of the Dead Dad club.
I didn’t know I had already found one until I read an interview with the director of the Final Girls. In a talk from August with /Film, the film’s director, Todd Strauss-Schulson, describes how his decision to make the film arose from the death of his father. When Strauss-Schulson read the script, written by his friends Mark Fortin and Joshua John Miller, the film’s inner fantasy—the idea that a girl suffering from a loss could spend time with her mother through movies—resonated on a personal level. At the time, he told /Film, “I was dreaming about my dad all the time, and it was really nice because I kind of got to spend time with him that way, you know? It wasn’t bad, it was really happy.”
I’d seen the Final Girls; I’d cried in the dark with Max and Nancy and other sniffling viewers. And so, even after reading Strauss-Schulson's interview, I felt at a gut level that the screenwriters might understand something about grief too. On a whim, I reached out to Fortin. As it turns out, my feeling was right; grief recognizes grief.
“The genesis of the movie came from ... [me] trying to reconcile my father’s death,” Miller says. Miller’s father, the accomplished playwright and actor Jason Miller, played the priest in the Exorcist. “I grew up watching my father, Jason, in this movie all my life,” he says. The parallels between the experiences of Max and Miller, who share memories or proxies of their parents with complete strangers, give the Final Girls its unexpected, almost secret layer.
It took about seven or eight years after his father's death, before Miller and Fortin came up with the idea for the Final Girls. “We wanted to make a poignant movie about grieving in the mind of a young girl who’s having a fever dream and reconciling with grief,” Miller says. The screenwriters originally pitched the film as Terms of Endearment meets Friday the 13th, which they said many people in Hollywood called “crazy”—merging the tones of comedy and horror in a single movie seemed illogical and stylistically absurd.
I have shared that disbelief. As an adult grappling with death, I sometimes feel like I should somehow be healed by now. That, honestly, it’s not that big of a deal to hold your father’s hand while he dies. That, like a horror movie that just will not end, trauma should be powered through.
In the slasher movies from the '80s that the Final Girls both commemorates and satirizes, there is also unexpected optimism and light. “Death was omnipresent [in those movies], but at the same time there was hope,” Fortin says. “You know, if you kept your wits about you, you kept, you know, an eye peeled on the door, if you slept with one eye open, then somehow you could be OK.”
In the world of Miller and Fortin’s film, as in most horror, there is only room for one Final Girl.
At the same time, the Final Girls plumbs the idea of survivor’s guilt. For in the world of Miller and Fortin’s film, as in most horror, there is only room for one Final Girl. There is simply no way for both Max and Nancy to survive the movie and for Max and her friends to get back to their real lives. It would disrupt the horror-movie universe and its established rules. With Max’s help, Nancy survives in the movie much longer than she originally did, but that’s as far as it can go. Once it’s settled who will sacrifice herself, what follows is at once wrenching and campy, set to “Bette Davis Eyes.” Part of the movie’s power is its ability to combine comedy with tragedy: Nancy unbuttons her top to lure Billy to her and kill her, leaving Max to face him herself. The conflictual emotions of the moment were consciously constructed: “When you lose a parent at a young age, you just inevitably somehow feel complicit,” Miller says. “On some subconscious level, you feel you caused it.... Probably, that’s rooted in some kind of wish to kill your parent.”
As we talk, a memory swims to the surface. The chilly surface of the salmon-colored pleather reclining seat I’d slept on—or tried to—next to my dad’s hospital bed. The nurse coming in to check his vitals. I asked, with more than a hint of desperation, what would happen if I took off his oxygen mask. She looked at me like I was a criminal—he would suffocate to death, she explained. In my desperation for a reprieve, it hadn’t even fully occurred to me what I was suggesting. The hours of monitoring each breath, each inhale and hitch and exhale and wait, were making me as crazy as the church volunteers who offered to pray with us during the day. Once, during another stint in the hospital, he’d even tried to shoo away the rabbi who would later perform his memorial. “We’re goyim!” he snapped.
Aside from all the times growing up that I’d wanted to murder my father, it was true that I was crippled with guilt: for not moving back to Dallas to help out, for not providing him with grandchildren, for all the times I’d been ashamed of his eccentricities that were so like my own.
Living through the death of my father was a rite of passage, like walking across hot coals very slowly. I was—I became, I am—both invincible and utterly shattered. To see representations of ourselves and our stories in media is to feel seen; to watch the Final Girls and talk with Miller and Fortin about its creation is as cathartic as the Final Girl’s ultimate kill.
Although there are a lot of ways I shun normality in everyday life, I still want to be emotionally normal. I’ve long worried that carrying this wound inside me was somehow abnormal, a sick obsession, something gross and shameful. Watching the Final Girls, that shame dissolved into recognition.
In my conversations with Fortin and Miller and their film, I came to terms with it: I am a Final Girl. For all the Final Girls and Guys out there, the archetype has a message beyond what film theorists usually envision. Even if you end up as battered and bloody as Marilyn Burns in the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, even if, as Clover says, viewing the character as a feminist development is “wishful thinking,” she—you—are still a survivor.