I was nearing what seemed to be my worst mental and emotional health in over a decade. I had recently moved to Chicago from Milwaukee, a place that introduced to me the theory and practice of community in the formative years of my adult life. Simultaneously, the spiritual, artistic and systemic limitations of Milwaukee had a dulling effect; I could not feel a future there.
Following a cacophony of signs and confirmations, I moved, with two good friends. One was Peter, whose journey through gender was an act of discipleship that inspired shifts in how I thought about the humanity of queerness. Indeed, it was friends—in church, recovery, and the arts—that pricked my heart with the conviction that God loves queer people and wants us to have life, and have it abundantly. The differences in our individual bodies and otherwise, our differences from other members of the body, are not meant to be sacrificed, but stewarded.
I felt that internal movement—away from mandated celibacy and a binary thinking of gender and sexuality, toward an anguished delight in the beauty and diversity of queerness’ design and belovedness—during the external stagnancy of my pandemic life. So it was perhaps only a surprise to me when, post-vaccination, God truly and immediately arranged my first relationship in the fall of 2021. Peter and a few other trusted friends witnessed it. I was terrified to tell anyone else.
In a new city and in the days leading to Halloween, I was losing half of my usual sleep because of an early shift for a one-day gig; anxiety about a new part-time job with a chaotic environment that I had just quit; sadness over the quick end of what had felt like the beginning of a serious relationship; and a call from a dear friend in recovery who had relapsed. After four nights of sleep deprivation, I decided to join a dating app for the first time. I met and messaged with the kindest, cutest boy, Terrell. For a couple of nights, I slept better.
Then the weather turned cold and the ancient radiant heating system in our apartment expanded the floorboards in my bedroom, resulting in popping sounds that seemed as loud as gunshots. Terrell and I scheduled our first date. The byproduct of all this was pure adrenaline; a constant euphoria and fear, as if I was starring in an erotic thriller. I could take two Zzzquil, along with other natural calming aids, and still only get 4 hours of sleep from it. On Friday, October 28th, two days before the date with Terrell, I knew my roommates would be gone for the evening, and I didn’t want to be alone, so I bought a ticket to a showing of the 1978 horror classic Halloween.
Why? Why, in this horrible state of mind and soul, did I want a horror movie? Well, that’s simple to answer: gender identity and the story of my life. It’s a little more difficult to explain. First I have to tell you about my favorite band.
The Art of Getting By
Screen Violence is the fourth album by Scottish synth-pop band CHVRCHES. Prior to its release, they had already proven themselves as stylists and innovators; CHVRCHES both imitates and is equal to Depeche Mode, The Cure, Brian Eno and New Order. Written and recorded during the height of the pandemic, Screen Violence is a concept album, in the most joyful way, because it knows how to camp it up and to be real at the same time. It finds life in overkill. “There’s a lot of dread on the record, but it’s also about perseverance,” says Lauren Mayberry, lead vocalist and lyricist. “[It’s about] trying to be hopeful and having something to put your emotions into.”
It’s also a horror-film-as-album. Mayberry is a fan of John Carpenter—the director and composer of Halloween—and a woman working in an industry and society that never stops surveilling her. Screen Violence is Mayberry’s engagement with the horror genre as, in her words, “the art of getting by.” In track 6, she uses the trope of the “final girl” in horror plots—the one nobody believes, who makes it until the end—to reflect on her place as an artist and person: “And it feels like the weight is too much to carry / I should quit, maybe go get married / In the final cut / In the final scene / There’s a final girl / Does she look like me? / In the final cut / In the final scene / There’s a final girl / And you know that she should be screaming now.” When I saw the Madison concert of the Screen Violence tour, one of Mayberry’s outfits was distressed jean shorts and a white T-shirt that read “FINAL GIRL”; in an electric moment, she raised her fists high and squeezed, breaking packets of fake blood that streamed down her arms.
Generally, Screen Violence is a reflection of how Mayberry has been perceived, policed and exploited, as a conventionally attractive woman at the front of a band popularized by the internet. Specifically, it is an appeal for love that can be present with you in the darkness, observe who you are and envision how you could be more yourself. On track 5, Mayberry sings, “I’m writing a book on how to stay conscious when you drown.”
Women Under Attack
At the beginning of puberty, I developed—among other things—a fascination with cinema that depicted women under attack by evil forces, usually found in the suspense, thriller, horror and mystery genres. I started with Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much and Doris Day’s incredibly emotional performance at the center, as a woman whose child has been kidnapped as part of a massive political plot. I continued with The Birds and Tippi Hedren’s beautiful stranger who arrives in a small town that is assaulted by seagulls shortly after; she is blamed for it. I continued with Halloween and Jamie Lee Curtis, who plays a virginal and uncomfortable character fleeing and fighting the boogeyman himself.
The extremity of style and emotion endemic to these films was compelling to me. As in melodrama, there was a license to be flamboyant with aesthetics and performance. Women were frequently portrayed as victims and survivors. Although unaware at the time, I felt like the “final girl” represented me, portraying some aspect of my experience as a queer person in white evangelical Christianity, afraid of the boogeyman, my own gender and sexuality. The films—the women—were scripting and believing my story before I knew I had one.
To Be Alive
As for the showing of Halloween, it did not meet my expectations. First, it was packed with all kinds of people. Second, it was not taken seriously. Any moment that hadn’t aged well was laughed at, but with affection instead of derision. I heard myself laughing too, thanks to the warmth of the crowd and a couple of edibles I ate on the way in. And yet, the score—the score was as minimal, maddening and memorable as I expected, with synthesizers that CHVRCHES shamelessly stole.
But then, Screen Violence is a dense pattern of musical and visual references to iconic horror movies and synth pop music. They are all essential, but still not the point. What is the point? To see a movie—to hear an album—where the worst keeps happening and the losses keep coming, but when it’s over, you walk away, feeling lucky to be alive.