Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.
When I was a kid, my mom wouldn’t let me watch horror movies, which of course drew me to the genre even more. One way I tried to satisfy my curiosity was feverishly scanning the back of VHS jacket covers in my grocery store’s video rental section while my parents shopped. As I was reading, a wealth of possibilities involving fantastic and frightening stories began to open.
Years later, some of these films almost lived up to the lofty billing from inside younger me’s head…others not so much.
When I discovered Grady Hendrix’s writing (first via My Best Friend’s Exorcism), it felt like all that potential I’d conjured as a child came to fruition and then some. His stories were not only terrifying, but filled with adventure, tragedy, and a surprising amount of humor that never dulled the seriousness of the narrative. The best stuff, however, was found in his wonderfully drawn characters, who you couldn’t help but fall in love with — even the ones who made you want to run and hide from them.
With The Final Girl Support Group, all the best parts of Hendrix’s writing are amplified and on full display. It’s a love letter to old school horror that also stands on its own as a fantastic tale of survival, from both external threats and personal demons alike.
Hendrix was kind enough to sit down and talk with us about what went into crafting his most recent novel along with what makes the final girl trope continue to be a such a standard/popular horror staple. He also gave us some hints about a few of his upcoming projects, one of which made me squeal in a very undignified manner.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. There are also some minor spoilers within the interview for The Final Girl Support Group.
AIPT: Each of the main characters in The Final Girl Support Group is a clear homage to either a specific final girl or horror franchise. They also have incredibly strong personalities and histories that could each warrant their own narrative. What made you settle on Lynette Tarkington to be the main narrator? Was it because her film (Silent Night, Deadly Night) didn’t have a conventional ‘final girl’ component?
Grady Hendrix: I think you could say the final girl is the nun, but it doesn’t really work or fit that traditional template.
The truth is I wanted a Santa Claus killer in there because it was the one iconic slasher I didn’t have. There’s a prom night killer, a Halloween killer, a redneck mutant cannibal family, a summer camp slasher, and a supernatural/dream killer. But there wasn’t a Christmas killer, which was a pretty big genre in the late ’70s and into the ’80s. Silent Night, Deadly Night is the iconic Santa Claus killer movie, but like you said, there’s no real final girl in it.
When I was watching the movie, I thought “Oh wow, Linnea Quigley’s in this,” who I loved from Return of the Living Dead. From there, I thought it’d be really interesting if Lynette wasn’t technically a final girl. She survived, but never got that public approval because she fought back and won. She was very much still a victim to some extent. It helped make her feel like an outsider compared to the other final girls in the group.
It’s one of those decisions where I’m either subconsciously a genius or just very lucky that it all worked out.
AIPT: A lot of the characters in your previous works are based on people you actually know or interacted with during your life. Were there any real life influences you used to make The Final Girl Support Group feel so intensely personal despite its cast being based around established fictional characters?
Grady Hendrix: There were some, especially with Dani (Laurie Strode/Halloween) and Marilyn (Sally Hardesty/The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Julia (Sidney Prescott/Scream) is based on someone I know pretty well, but in a very unrecognizable way. There were also definitely people I didn’t necessarily know very well, but who I’ve seen who were definitely in my head while writing the story.
But the most personal one is Lynette, who’s essentially me.
I always felt like if I was in a slasher situation, I’d be the type who’d get guns, be a badass, and fight back. That was always my assumption of myself. In the early drafts of the book, Lynette was a lot healthier and more of a badass. But as I wrote, I realized all the stuff I thought would make me so tough in this situation would actually make me incredibly socially isolated and unable to have a relationship with other human beings — basically a paranoid freak completely cut off from other people.
So very quickly in those early drafts, Lynette’s personality went from basically a Mary Sue of me to a socially dysfunctional train wreck of a human being who’s cut off from everyone else around her…which may be a more accurate self-portrait of myself, to be honest.
AIPT: I think a lot of us honestly believe that if we were in that situation, we’d totally step up instead of pissing our pants.
Grady Hendrix: Oh yeah. Everyone overestimates their capabilities under stress.
AIPT: My Best Friend’s Exorcism is set in the ’80s and The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Vampire Slaying is set in the ’90s. Why did you decide to set The Final Girl Support Group in 2010, an era that doesn’t elicit much nostalgia yet?
Grady Hendrix: Covid. I wanted the story to be contemporary, which would have made it take place in 2020. I just didn’t want the book to be about the pandemic.
I also couldn’t set it in 2018 or 2019 because then you have that moment where it’s like “Oh yay! It’s over and everything’s happy,” and the reader is sort of hanging there knowing they’re about to get an airborne respiratory coronavirus. So I wanted to bump it back far enough to where Covid wasn’t even a consideration.
That also ended up helping a little with people’s ages in terms of having their movie franchises roughly hit (when the ones they were based on would’ve been released back in the day) and having these women all still be in their late 30s into their 40s and very early 50s.
AIPT: I know you do a lot of research for your books before putting pen to paper. Besides consuming a ton of horror media over the decades, what else did you do to prepare for writing The Final Girl Support Group?
Grady Hendrix: So there were basically three steps to the research.
The first was that I didn’t want to get too bogged down in the franchises. I just took the first and second movie for most and really tried to keep them basic. I wanted it to be accessible and sort of primal for people who weren’t horror nerds like me.
For the second stage, I really like to read whatever genre I’m writing in. It helps me avoid pitfalls and not do the same thing while also giving me a taste for what’s out there. But there aren’t really any literary equivalents for a slasher. There’s plenty of serial killer books, but aside from a few like Slay Bells by Jo Gibson, Joyride by Stephen Crye, there’s really not a lot in the slasher arena.
So I kept looking and finally came across what was, to me, the sort of literary precedent for slashers, which are fairy tales.
I mean, Little Red Riding Hood is really the primal slasher story. A teenage girl goes into the woods, is told specifically not to do a certain thing, does it, and gets confronted with this male, hyper-masculine figure. He physically overpowers her, so she has to save herself using guile and resourcefulness. There’s also disguises and masks, which make up a key component of the story.
There were two other books that I read a lot when I was writing The Final Girl Support Group. One was Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, which is a collection of short stories where she reinterprets a lot of fairy tales. They’re very erotic, very sensual/tactile, and violent. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the Neil Jordan movie The Company of Wolves, but that’s adapted from one of the stories. I really feel like that helped inspire a lot of the wheezy male/female stuff in my book.
The other one was Marina Warner’s No Go the Boogeyman, which is her nonfiction history of the boogeyman in western culture. A lot of that stuff comes out in segments featuring Chrissy Mercer [the final girl who runs the murder memorabilia museum].
The third stage of research was figuring out the practical stuff, like how to get around in L.A., travel times, murderabilia market prices, etc. A big one for me was figuring out wheelchair use. I really wanted to make sure I understood how a person uses a wheelchair correctly. That’s what I ended up asking for help on from other people more than anything.
AIPT: You already hit on some areas of this next question, but why do you think the ‘final girl’ trope became so prevalent in the ’70s/’80s and continues to be a horror staple today?
Grady Hendrix: The final girls have really changed since the ones we saw from that time period. I would argue that a lot of the final girls in movies today are more warrior women, which you sort of saw pioneered by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She really popularized them showing up and being ready to rock and roll.
The final girls I like more are the ones from the ’80s up through Scream and the mid-’90s slasher revival. It’s someone who is not particularly smart and not particularly strong. They’re not the best of the bunch, but they just don’t give up. They have to dig deep and be resourceful. They’re also maybe a little more observant than their friends and a little more cautious, but there’s nothing particularly amazing about or exceptional about them right out of the box. They are people who have to dig deep to find the resources to survive.
I agree that the continued fascination we have with final girls is weird, but it also makes a lot of sense. Again, going all the way back to fairy tales, it’s the image of a vulnerable woman meeting a masculine-coded figure who outclasses her physically. That’s Little Red Riding Hood or Bluebeard — and in a weird way, the erotica version of that is Beauty and the Beast.
This has always been something in our mythology that we as an audience really like. You see it in urban legends like The Hook, The Roommate and The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs. Those came out in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s and inspired a lot of slashers. You can see their influence make its way into Black Christmas, Halloween, and then out into everything else.
It really is this cultural molecule or atom that can’t be reduced any further than people liking that dynamic.
AIPT: Maybe I’m just not looking hard enough, but I can’t think of many horror franchises where the trauma and life of a final girl is explored decades after her survival (which is a major component of what made the 2018 Halloween movie and your novel so good). We kind of got some meta commentary on it in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Scream 4, but that’s all I can think of offhand. Why do you think this isn’t a narrative that’s explored more in horror media?
There are two iconic movies for me when it comes to final girls. The first is Friday the 13th Part Two, where Alice Hardy (played by Adrienne King) is the final girl from part one and gets knocked off at the beginning, which I always thought was a real crime.
Then there’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, where Heather Langenkamp shows up as Nancy again leading a support group for these kids being terrorized by Freddie. That was a real eye-opener for me when I saw it and realized that characters from one horror movie can show up in another to help. It made me wonder why they don’t do that more.
I think maybe one of the reasons people don’t explore it so much is also something that gave me a bit of trouble with the book. When you start talking about final girls, you’re not talking about a human being. You’re talking about a trope. Once we start talking about tropes, there’s a tendency to treat them in a very off-handed way; to make fun of them or be cynical.
So I feel like when people approach final girls, it’s often from a very ironic point of view. Even for me, in the early drafts of this book, the story only came alive when I stopped thinking of these characters as final girls and started thinking of them as people with families — mapping out their parents, brothers and sisters, where they grew up, stuff like that.
I feel like the idea of taking them really seriously as people and taking what they’ve been through seriously…no one was really going there because maybe it felt too dark. Or maybe just because the final girl is a trope and we always look at tropes kind of ironically.
AIPT: One of my favorite scenes in The Final Girl Support Group was when Lynette was recounting how Danni talked about all the people who died trying to protect her when she was in the hospital (like in Halloween II) and how much that guilt weighed on her.
Grady Hendrix: That was one thing that really came to me from watching Halloween II. I mean, it’s a lot of cops, nurses, and doctors — and the only reason they die is because they’re between Michael and Laurie Strode. And I’m just thinking “God, that is some kind of survivor guilt.”
As a teenager, you already think you’re pretty worthless. Then to be like “How is my life worth all these other lives?,” that’s a big burden to carry.
AIPT: You’ve said there won’t be a sequel to The Final Girl Support Group, but you’ve gotta admit that it would be the ultimate meta-commentary move to make one. Any temptation to do so?
Grady Hendrix: No, but it’s been picked up by HBO for a TV series. Obviously the big question with that is what happens in Season 2. That’s definitely something they’re talking about. They actually had a couple of really cool ideas that I don’t want to ruin, but there are ideas I never would have considered. So to me, if it has a sequel, it’s gonna be on the show.
AIPT: Will you have any hand in the scripts on the television series? Also, is there any idea/plan for how to deal with all the franchise rights (carefully avoid mentioning them, pay up and fully embrace them, rewrites, etc.)?
Grady Hendrix: I don’t know exactly how they’re going to deal with the rights issues. It’s really one of those things that’s up to smarter legal minds than mine.
As for the first part of your question, I’m a producer on the series and will be involved–reading scripts, giving notes, stuff like that. I used to have a pretty hands-off approach to my stuff, but I realized that just isn’t as satisfying.
AIPT: What is currently on your bookshelf and watch list for the month of October?
Grady Hendrix: Every two to three Octobers I re-read Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes just because I love that book. It’s really a big one for me and it’s such a fall story.
I’m also working on two projects right now, one of which is a live Christmas show. To help prepare for that, Valancourt has four or five books of Victorian ghost stories for Christmas I’m reading through, some of which are really, really funny.
I’m also reading several of the Charles Dickens Christmas ghost stories. I like A Christmas Carol as much as the next person, but Dickens was not a spiritualist at all.
He did a Christmas anthology called The Haunted House. It had a frame story that he wrote about a haunted house and he and other contributors would each take a room. The stories aren’t very good, but the frame story has one of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read. He basically talks about waking up early one morning and how weird it felt to see his family still asleep like they’re practicing to be dead. Then he just very casually mentions “I saw my father sitting with his back to me and watched him and spoke to him. Then I reached out to him and he was gone.”
Dickens was super cynical about spiritualism, but this is the way apparitions happen in real life. They’re not dramatic. They’re very matter-of-fact, but also have a profound emotional impact. It’s a really beautiful passage.
As far as the things I’m watching this month, I’m working on a project that’s going to go super gothic, so I’m watching a bunch of gothic horror movies like The Spiral Staircase and Gaslight. I’m also watching Dragonwyck, The Wolf Man, and The Curse of the Cat People, which is the way more gothic response to the original Cat People. I’m in full-on 19th century mode right now.
AIPT: Let’s go back a bit because you kind of buried the lede there. What’s this about a live Christmas show?
Grady Hendrix: On December 9th in Charleston at the Terrace Theater, I’m going to be doing one of my live shows. This one’s going to be all about Christmas horror, so I’ll be talking about the Victorian and British tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. It’s going to have a bunch of Dickens, but a lot of other people in there, as well. We’ll also talk about the crazy Finnish monsters that come with the holiday and how Christmas was a time when Victorian people in the 19th century felt like the veil between the living and the dead was very thin.
There’s just a whole slew of ghost stories from that period that ended up on the BBC in the ‘70s. There was this tradition of a ghost story for Christmas where they did TV movies that were usually broadcast on Christmas Day. Mostly it’s Dickens or M.R. James stories, but they’re great — really creepy and very unsettling. They were also designed for the family to watch together, which is really kind of perverse.
Then there’s the whole ’80s slasher tradition of killer Santa Clauses, so it’s going to be full on Christmas horror. At the end, we’re going to show an episode from a semi-lost 1980s TV show that had a Christmas episode that’s amazingly brutal.
AIPT: Well this event is happening right in my backyard, so I’ll definitely be buying tickets.
Grady Hendrix: There should be an official announcement and ticket sales going up in the next couple of weeks.
AIPT: For folks like me who absolutely loved The Final Girl Support Group, what other books or horror media would you recommend that deconstruct the genre in a similar manner? (Aside from Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, which is a great movie and the answer everyone seems to give to that question).
And when I say “deconstruct,” I mean that in the best possible way. You definitely take a few jabs at the genre, but always with a large and unquestionable degree of affection. You also use many of the genre’s tropes to create moments far more powerful than I or any other reader is likely to expect.
For example: The part where Lynette & Co. break Dani’s wife out of the nursing home so she could die outside thinking she was home instead of an unfamiliar place. There were definitely some funny hijinks involved in getting us there, but it was also a very tense sequence that resolved into something profoundly moving and tragic. It was yet another example of that wonderful/infuriating thing you do where I end up laughing and crying at the same time.
Grady Hendrix: I appreciate that. Also, that’s real life. The horrible stuff sits right next to the funny stuff which sits right next to the sad stuff. We don’t we don’t get a single genre for our lives.
As for your first question, I gotta say that Marina Warner’s No Go the Boogey Man is really great. If you love horror, then that book is essential reading. It’s basically a history of the slasher figure before there were slashers.
The other book that really deconstructs the final girl genre (and works really well as a companion piece to No Go the Boogey Man) is Steven Graham Jones’ My Heart is a Chainsaw, which just came out last month and is great. Steven’s a lot tougher than I am. He has a stronger stomach, so he’ll do things to his characters that I don’t have the guts to do. It’s also a very different take on the final girl trope, but deconstructs it really nicely.
AIPT: Aside from the upcoming live Christmas show (which I absolutely cannot wait to see), what other projects do you have coming up?
Grady Hendrix: Something actually just came up that might derail my next year, but right now the plan is to have another book out next summer. I’ve turned in the rough draft and am waiting to get the edits. That one is about brothers and sisters, death, and evil puppets.
Then I’ve got the book I want to dive into for 2023 that I’m gonna start doing the research for in January (unless this other project derails that). But yeah, I’ve got next year locked down and the year after just about locked down, as well.
If you haven’t read this year’s best horror novel yet (and want to be one of those insufferable “I read the book first” people when the HBO series is released), go pick up your copy of ‘The Final Girl Support Group‘ today.
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