The words “comfort” and “slasher” might not seem to go together—in fact, you might see them as diametrically opposed. After all, what’s comforting about a masked man jumping out of your closet brandishing a knife, or a strange voice on the phone asking if you like scary movies? But in Stephen Graham Jones’ new novel My Heart is a Chainsaw, the well-trod roads of the horror genre are just that, a safety net for his traumatized protagonist. As mysterious—but ominously familiar—events start popping up around the gentrifying town of Proofrock, Jade Daniels uses her encyclopedic knowledge of horror conventions to investigate the goings-on.
Horror isn’t for everyone, but those who love it, love it. I used to know someone who watched horror movies before bed, the way I might watch an episode of Friends or New Girl (this person also worked in a funeral home, so make of that what you will). In My Heart is a Chainsaw, Jade is singularly obsessed with slasher films, knows them inside out, her stream-of-consciousness-like narration a running encyclopedia of the genre (this Letterboxd list compiles Jade’s film references, all 171 of them). She knows her Final Girls, from Laurie Strode to Nancy Thompson to Sidney Prescott; those “good girls” who follow the rules of surviving a horror movie while their less virtuous friends get offed. Jade herself is something of a Final Girl, but she exists on the fringes of society: an Indigenous teenager with an abusive father and absent mother, who barely scrapes through school and has multiple suicide attempts under her belt. Since the Final Girl rules were cemented by Halloween in 1978, filmmakers have played with them, subverted them, modernized them—but Jade, devotee of the classics, doesn’t even consider that she might have Final Girl potential until she’s all but run out of options.
In fact, the established rules of horror are so ingrained in Jade’s psyche that she distorts real life events into the shapes of the films she loves (“When you’re wearing slasher goggles, everything can look like a slasher”, she says). To Jade, slasher films are her worldview, and it’s a worldview in which everything happens according to some predetermined formula—the horrible events happening in her town of Proofrock aren’t random, they’re at the behest of same overarching narrative. And at the end, the Final Girl always emerges victorious, right? The rules of horror offer comfort that the real world cannot—and no horror genre is more formulaic or rule-abiding than the slasher. Jones, like his protagonist, is fluent in slasher, and he starts us off with an old staple: the cold open, in which a Dutch couple on vacation are killed by something mysterious while out canoeing (after skinny dipping, like any good slasher victim). It’s an effectively spooky opening, and will send a thrill down the spines of readers who are still reeling from Drew Barrymore’s death at the beginning of Scream (or, more recently Maya Hawke’s death at the beginning of Fear Street: 1994). It’s pure fun.
And while that might sound dark, there is some psychological reasoning behind it. A Vice article from 2017 sees the author investigate the connection between horror films and anxiety disorders. She asks, “When an anxious person watches a horror movie, are we binging on low-level anxiety as a form of psychological inoculation against the real thing? Or are we basically just mainlining adrenaline?” An interview with a professor of psychology affirms these questions, adding that “The genre allows us to voluntarily—and under controlled circumstances—get experience with negative emotion.” It’s the same reason we go on rollercoasters or go to Halloween mazes, to experience that fear in a way that we trust is safe.
And of course, there’s the distance: the screen or page protecting us from the killer. Knowing deep down that the person in the Halloween maze dressed like a deranged clown cannot legally touch you. As Jade narrates, “She’s a gorehound, a horror fiend, the more brutal the better, bring it on, faster, pussycat, kill kill kill, but that’s all on-screen. And at some level she never forgets that all the blood’s corn syrup”. But what happens if fiction starts to bleed into real life? If suddenly those protective barriers are removed? Late one Halloween night in my teenage years, a friend and I were hanging around outside, in the dead of suburbia, not a soul in sight. Suddenly, a figure appeared out of the darkness: it was a man, alone, dressed like Michael Myers from Halloween. We at once found ourselves in a horror movie: we giggled, we did the whole “very funny” thing—we were basically every teen girl in a slasher. But when that masked man took a step toward us, we ran like our lives depended on it. We ended up being fine, of course, and now the whole thing is a funny story we tell, but that night we felt for a moment how characters in slashers must feel—and it wasn’t fun. This Michael Myers had escaped the confines of fiction, and things got scary, fast.
I won’t spoil anything in My Heart is a Chainsaw, but Jones’ novel isn’t just about some cloaked figure slashing and dashing their way through town. In her quest to see her real-life-turned-slasher-film ordeal through, Jade, for the first time, finds herself at the centre of the story. And when the events stubbornly refuse to mold themselves into the rules she knows, she is forced to confront the truth of her own trauma, finally morphing into a hybrid of Final Girl and slasher (like Erin in You’re Next, or Grace in Ready or Not).
If you’re a fan of horror fiction, you’ll want to check out Stephen Graham Jones’ extensive catalogue, including the winner of last year’s Bram Stoker Award, The Only Good Indians. And for film fans, get your lungs ready to holler during Halloween Kills and Scream 5! Happy Halloween!