Named for their natural settings, The Handmaid’s Tale season four finale, “The Wilderness” (2021) and Land (2021) are both, importantly, women-directed stories that expand ecohorror elements and the feminist horror genre, flipping the Final Girl horror trope. Protagonists June (Elisabeth Moss) and Edee (Robin Wright) are not simply the stereotypical Final Girls walking out of the woods after violence – a too-common horror trope in which girls and women are victims of violence, at the hands of men, in natural spaces where only men “survive.” June and Edee’s stories start after their traumas – horror already experienced – as they walk into the woods for their own types of healing and then walk out as complicated protagonists rather than flat female-victims-as-porn.
Carol Clover (2015) writes that while the Final Girl is a survivor, her role is mostly based in being demeaned and abused, a ‘“victim-hero,” with an emphasis on “victim”’ (p. x). And that victimhood has historically been rape/ trauma porn made for a certain type of male viewer (there are too many examples to list here). But June and Edee’s survival and renewal, rather than trauma, is the focus in these texts as they find redemption in the classic horror natural spaces for a very different audience. In a reversal of typical Final Girl horror tropes, ‘The Wilderness’ and Land empower women in natural spaces rather than using such spaces as instruments of trauma. These texts utilize ecohorror elements but showcase such natural spaces as redemptive for women, extending the Final Girl horror trope past the immediate violence and past its emphasis on women as victims.
In The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-2021) series, women’s bodies are treated as resources in a time of environmental crisis –wombs, toxic cleanup crews, sex slaves. All children, and also women capable of pregnancy, are valuable commodities globally because environmental toxins have nearly stopped human reproduction. The first scene of major trauma in the Handmaid’s series is June and her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) being hunted in the woods by uniformed armed men of Gilead (formerly America) as June and Hannah try to escape to Canada, which is actively accepting and protecting Gilead refugees. In Gilead, after a recent, too-familiar January 6th-style takeover of the federal government, women have been stripped of jobs and bank accounts and are used as resources. So, June ran with Hannah. Despite their efforts, when the armed men of Gilead find June and Hannah hiding in the woods, Hannah is pulled violently from June, and June is assigned to produce babies as resources for Gilead. Hannah is sent to a wealthy Gilead family to be raised into Gilead ways by them and schooled to be a Wife, early teen girls married off to male Gilead officials. June, as a Handmaid (a person capable of getting pregnant, despite the environmental toxins) is lawfully and systematically raped by Fred, Gilead Commander, while being held down by his Wife.
But in ‘The Wilderness’ episode, women take revenge. The Handmaid’s Tale’s horror often happens in enclosed spaces controlled by men and their compliant wives who systematically normalize taking children and raping women. The season four finale, though, closes with June and other women finding justice in the woods, Final Women having found their form of justice rather than experiencing only trauma. The opening of the episode is a flashback scene of June and Fred (Joseph Fiennes) slow dancing at a brothel as he gropes her. The scene is golden-hued with piano music tinkling in the background and close up shots of his hands in her hair and lifting the hem of her dress, which could all read as seduction in a different context – if he didn’t own her. June’s narration makes the tone clear: ‘Pretend you like it. […] Make him believe because your motherfucking life depends on it. Don’t run. Don’t kick. Don’t scream. Don’t bite it off. Don’t. Bite.’ Importantly, she breaks the fourth wall during the scene, drawing the viewer into the space and foreshadowing the later revenge scene and Fred’s first-person POV looking up at her. These elements lean into good-for-her horror, which, Christy Tidwell (2021) writes, ‘is similar to rape-revenge films […],’ but shows ‘female pleasure, transcendence, and escape’ in revenge and ‘focuses on audience affect,’ audience solidarity here.
The look June gives the audience echoes the horror of real sexual violence – the looks women give to one another in bars, parking lots, work spaces, grocery stores – but also establishes the expansion of the Final Girl plot. Significantly, Abigail Chandler (2017) writes that the series is ‘horror in the purest sense of the word’ because it’s not as removed from reality as some horror is. Liz Garbus, the episode director, has a history of exploring female sexual assault trauma and subsequent rage in her previous work, Lost Girls and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, as well as focusing on women survivor’s narratives. That is all palpable and refreshing in ‘The Wilderness.’ While June’s stifling enclosed spaces, like the brothel’s dance floor, demonstrate the attempted control of women and girls, this wooded scene, in its unconfined space, is integral to establishing June’s and the other women’s revenge. June’s narrative flips the script, as she says later in the episode: ‘I need Fred to get what he deserves. I want him to be afraid, because I was afraid for so long […] Like in the woods when I was caught, and they took Hannah. […] I want him to be scared to death.’ And she does make him afraid in the woods, expanding the Final Girl trope by reversing roles.
What takes place in the woods in this final scene also functions as an alteration of rape-revenge horror. The camera switches between aggressor and victim points of view but not as violent exploitation of June. Rather, the audience alternates between close ups of Fred’s and June’s faces as well as between wide shots of Fred in the role of the (usually) female horror victim running and the women as a legion of pursuers, delighting in revenge as their flashlights strobe the woods. June’s words from the opening scene play at a faster pace during the chase, and that earlier brothel scene is intercut. When Fred falls in the woods, June breathes deeply, head tilted to the sky, smiles, and kicks him. As she does, the rape-revenge horror shot is not simply Fred-as-victim or June-as-victim but flips from Fred’s supine perspective looking up at June’s pleasure in the violence and June’s perspective looking down at him cowering. Both are extremely horrifying and satisfying. It’s hard to watch that violence, but it’s also cathartic. And since Gilead allows no justice for women, and Canada’s legal system failed June and the other Gilead women, this gothic/horror scene could only happen in the woods. Not only are the other spaces controlled by men, but also the rape-revenge and/or good-for-her horror tropes necessitate the mirroring of the women’s horror.
The woods become a space of perhaps complicated empowerment, visually different from the enclosed, abusive Gilead spaces. Once the women start beating Fred, June takes a bite out of his face as the words ‘don’t bite’ from the opening scene play one at a time, emphasizing how often she had to tell herself not to run, kick, fight, bite as she does in this revenge scene. June and the other women emerge in the morning, a classic Final Girl visual trope. But in this scene, the trope extends to an entire community of women walking out. In that solidarity, natural spaces are highlighted in overhead shots. While still gray-toned, the scene exudes renewal, and the group of Final Women emerging is impactful in its nod to the numbers of women survivors of sexual violence and in its nod to women-centered community surviving such violence.
Land also utilizes ecohorror elements, with an old cabin in the woods, ghosts, secrets, isolation, and the trauma of violence. The rickety cabin is straight out of a horror film, with jump scares as Edee (Robin Wright) encounters various animals, nearly starves, and is alone, unconscious, with a strange man. The film is also a rare sole-woman survivor narrative that flips the Final Girl emergence from the woods into Edee’s deliberate disappearance into the woods after a trauma. She tells her friend Miguel (Demián Bichir), ‘I’m here in this place because I don’t want to be around people’ as she refuses his help. He responds ‘there are better ways to die,’ and, with a slightly different modulation, that would be a perfect horror line. But in Land, Edee struggles not against an immediate monster or killer outside the cabin but against her desire to kill herself after the trauma of gun violence, a horror that impacts women at higher rates, since a common thread that connects many of mass shooters is ‘a history of hating women,’ assaulting women, and misogyny (Bosman, Taylor, and Arango, 2019).
Land is a slow-burn Final Girl /Lone Female Survivor ecohorror film that also extends the Final Girl trope. The film focuses on recovery after violence. It is a quiet film that focuses on Edee and the natural space – healing rather than horrifying, even as it uses horror elements. Edee is a survivor who forms a non-violent, non-sexual, non-romantic friendship with a man whom she credits with making life ‘tolerable.’ In a scene late in the film, Miguel jokes with Edee that she ‘takes,’ and she jokes he ‘gives.’ It’s a refreshing moment for a Final Girl who seeks out the woods. Edee chooses the space. She survives cold, starvation, and her own psyche, and she thrives by the film’s end. No trauma porn for cheap horror thrills.
The message these narratives seem to be sending about ecohorror is that perhaps it’s not the cabins or the woods that warrants the sustained scare chord that audibly creates tension for the viewer, but instead the white cis-hetero-patriarchal systems enabling continued rape and other forms of control of and violence against women. The systems are horror, and women find vengeance and/or solace in natural spaces. Shira Lipkin (2014) writes that the Final Girl ‘is the cartographer of all the places the killer has not been. She is also the map,’ and that complexity resonates in these texts. June and Edee map the horror of these systems. The fact that all of these films were made by folks identifying as women and released after Trump’s presidency, and I’m writing after the reversal of Roe v. Wade, then, is important. Horror reflects a culture’s fears and asks about prevailing monsters. I suggest that these women-directed texts use ecohorror elements to flip the script and enable a space for women to tell their own horrific stories. Natural spaces provide a healing justice that patriarchal systems do not in these texts, expanding, along the way, the Final Girl trope.
Bridgitte Barclay is an Associate Professor of English and Environmental Studies at Aurora University. She writes and teaches about intersections of gender and the environment in speculative fiction and film. Her recent work includes an article on feminist eco-science in Leigh Brackett’s works, a reflection in the eco issue of Museum of Science Fiction: Journal of Science Fiction, a feature on early twentieth-century women explorers in Lady Science, the eco-creature feature issue of Science Fiction Film and Television, a chapter on gender and apocalypse in Fiction and the Sixth Mass Extinction, a chapter on The Monster That Challenged the World in Fear and Nature: Ecohorror and the Anthropocene, and Gender and Environment in Science Fiction.
Bosman, J., Taylor, K., and Arango, T. “A Common Trait Among Mass Killers: Hatred Toward Women.” The New York Times, 10 August 2019.
Chandler, A. “‘Horror in Its Purest Sense’: Is The Handmaid’s Tale the Most Terrifying TV Ever?” The Guardian, 28 July 2017.
Clover, C. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.
Land. Directed by R. Wright. USA: Focus Features, 2021.
Lipkin, S. “The Final Girl.” Strange Horizons, 14 April 2014.
Tidwell, C. “Beavers Bite Back: Rape-revenge, ‘Good for Her,’ and Freaky’s Final Girl.” Horror Homeroom, 9 March 2021.
“The Wilderness.” The Handmaid’s Tale, season 4, ep. 10. Directed by E. Garbus. USA: Hulu, 16 June 2021.