Final Girl

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.

Pure Adrenaline

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.


“I am here to run off the pain. I am here to synthercise the demons. I am here to ring the bells of Chvrches,” Billie tweeted in the lobby of the Riverside Theater, attaching a picture of a T-shirt on display at the merchandise table. Covering the chest was a cross turned sideways and X’d through a dark heart, the logo for Chvrches’ latest album, Love is Dead. Billie got a preview of the shirt just hours before at a Qdoba in South Milwaukee. “Don’t look now,” she whispered to her lunch date, like a character in a Daphne du Maurier story, “but that man is wearing a Chvrches shirt.” The date stopped baling the shredded lettuce of their burrito bowl and stared at her. “What?” Billie was pleased they had obeyed but agitated they were obtuse. “It’s my favorite band and they’re performing in Milwaukee tonight and I am going,” by now both of her hands were splayed on the table, hungry spiders. “Are they a Christian band?” The lunch date asked. The spiders twitched. “No,” Billie replied. “And no.”

“Has no one read Madeline L’Engle? You can’t be a Christian band, just like you can’t be a Christian writer, or a Christian artist,” Billie ranted on a call to her friend Lisa, on the drive back to her office, on and on. “You can be a Christian who has a band, or who writes, or who makes art. In Him we live and move and have our being: Sufjan Stevens talked about this in an interview. It takes the pressure off, it puts us in perspective.” There was a pause, then Lisa replied: “You know, Billie, it sounds like you really haven’t given this enough thought.” They both laughed, then there was another pause. “I just,” Billie picked at her steering wheel cover, “wish you were coming tonight.” Lisa sighed, “So do I.”

Billie had met Lisa and her husband, Quinn, at their parish, St. Rita, which was hosting a neighborhood association meeting in the basement. Lisa looked like a business casual version of Watts in Some Kind of Wonderful and Quinn’s face was the shape of an anime character, though not as expressive. It was only a few years after the subprime mortgage crisis, and unoccupied homes were being ignored, contributing to the decline of value and increasing the crime rate in Milwaukee, particularly in the area south of St. Rita.

The neighborhood association – composed of churches, businesses, nonprofits, residents – was organizing volunteer teams, and attendance was just low enough that to elude participation, or finesse an exit, was impossible. For those reasons, and better ones, Billie, Lisa and Quinn all offered to be on the home evaluation team; once a month, they received a list of residential addresses. They were supposed to visit during the day and circle the house, tracking its maintenance; instead, they cruised by at night, with one driving, one describing anything that seemed shifty and the other writing it down.

Following a few months of perfecting this system, they added to it: drinks afterward at Quinn and Lisa’s condo, which was built in the late ‘70s and had so many half walls and wide doorways that you could see a bit of every room from nearly every spot in the place. Soon, Billie was invited to a party, and then another, until she realized that Lisa didn’t actually like the condo unless it was being used as a venue.

The dining room always became the dance floor, with Lisa as playlister, mixing until everyone was whipped into a frenzy. Prior to every party, Quinn and Billie conspired to suggest multiple Chrvches songs each, in an attempt to force Lisa to include several, but she always stopped at two. “One per customer,” she would declare. When Chvrches came on, Quinn and Billie came on. People gave the floor, and if they didn’t, it was taken. Billie frequently needed more than one floor, more than one room, to fully express how wide and long and high and deep the songs made her feel; or rather, how much they sounded made of her feelings.

“[They] take a highly personal sense of turmoil,” Larry Fitzmaurice wrote in his review of their debut album, “and blow it up onto an arena-sized screen.” That turmoil was strong in Quinn, and though there were hints here and there, always at the parties, Billie didn’t quite heed them, or perhaps, didn’t want to? It was easy to assume that he’d drank too much. Lisa made assumptions for years, most of them pardoning Quinn and condemning herself: this was just how men were, she was just too disordered for a relationship, it was just a phase, if she just gave it more time, he was just upset, he was just so sorry. Until one night, when Lisa realized that sorry wasn’t sorry, it was sort of a bad doctor’s note, shown over and over again, excusing the sickness, establishing it as to be expected, exempting it from treatment.

After that night, Lisa moved out, and Quinn moved in on his friends, including Billie. But no matter how he moved, he remained at the center. Any fault was Lisa’s, any pain was his. In her mind, Billie kept seeing a book in her father’s office library, yellow with black lettering: People of the Lie: Toward a Psychology of Evil by M. Scott Peck. She hadn’t read it in over a decade.

Searching online, she found a list of patterns that Peck associated with evil and lost hope as they seemed more and more recent and familiar: consistently self-deceives and, consequently, deceives others; projects their sin onto a specific target; is unable to see from the viewpoint of their victim. “[God] said, ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’ By this statement – so often quoted out of context – Jesus did not mean we should never judge our neighbor,” Peck writes. “He went on to say, ‘Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.’ What he meant was that we should judge others only with great care, and that such carefulness begins with self-judgment.”

Billie saw herself in Quinn, a self that she had judged – in her writing, in counseling, in misty-eyed, tight-throated conversations with confidantes – but she could not stop judging it now: the self that, when others were complimented, felt insulted; wanted to be great more than good; traipsed after chastity while looking back at whomever had just whistled; high on oneself, the center of gravity, toppling over, pulled downward.

“Forever” had been one of their favorite tracks, and now, as the lead singer Lauren Mayberry sang it in that “cutting, aching, triumphant, fragile, and weightless” voice, Billie remembered dancing to it with Quinn, thrashing her hair with each forever; the chorus was all forevers. He bought the tickets for the three of them months and months ago. When Lisa decided on a divorce the day before the concert, Quinn e-mailed the general admission ticket to Billie, along with “I don’t want to see you.” The feeling was mutual, but it was not the only feeling; there were others, and they were phantoms, gliding through Billie, resisting grasp, every one sad.

On each side of the stage was a lit cross, tilted sideways, making an X. At the right moment, Mayberry leaned against one with the weight of her entire body and glared at the audience, as if daring them. Billie took a picture and texted it to Lisa. Between every song, she texted, urgently, tersely, as if the concert would no longer exist if it was not made text. The encore was “Never Say Die.”

Weren’t you gonna be sorry and weren’t you gonna be pure?
Weren’t we gonna be honest and weren’t we gonna be more?
Didn’t you say that? Didn’t you say that?
Didn’t you say that? Didn’t you say that?

Billie exchanged numbers with some cute guy who had stood next to her; she would not call him. Walking down the aisle, she occasionally paused to pick up trash, baffled as to why people did that. Where did they expect it to go? In the lobby, she considered the T-shirt again, but it was just too expensive, so she walked into the night, the crowd behind and before her, until they weren’t anymore. At an intersection, in her periphery, it appeared as if a man wearing one of Quinn’s hoodies was waiting for the walk signal to change. She didn’t turn.