Final Girls and Fantasies: On Stephen Graham Jones’s “My Heart Is a Chainsaw”

By Kali SimmonsSeptember 24, 2021

Final Girls and Fantasies: On Stephen Graham Jones’s “My Heart Is a Chainsaw”

My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

THERE ARE FEW figures as hotly debated among horror scholars, writers, and fans as the Final Girl. The Final Girl is the woman hero of the slasher genre, the one who survives the violence of the monster and lives to either watch it be defeated or defeat the monster herself. She is, inexorably, both victim and hero, both strong female lead and object of troubling scopophilic violence. Film scholar Carol J. Clover writes in her groundbreaking analysis of the slasher, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, that Final Girl characters contain a feminist potential, but just the same they can also be used in politically conservative ways to police the sexuality of women.

Prior to the emergence of the Final Girl figure, feminist film theory argued that many women moviegoers were either stuck identifying against their gender with the male hero, or forced to settle for the role of the hyper-sexualized and ineffectual romantic interest. When films like Black Christmas, Halloween, and Friday the 13th began to appear in theaters, the roles were reversed. Now young men were invited to identify with young women protagonists. It remains uncertain whether this filmic identificatory play has influenced American conceptions of gender for the better.

As an Indigenous woman who has borne a deep, lifelong admiration of the horror genre, I have always harbored ambivalent feelings about the figure of the Final Girl. When I was younger, I identified with strong independent women characters like Ripley from the Alien series who tolerated no bullshit and fiercely defended themselves and those they loved against the monster. Yet, as I grew older, my feelings about Final Girl characters shifted as I began to think about these films from the position of the monster. While Indigenous peoples are largely omitted from the horror genre, I could approach films from a certain set of viewing practices that enabled me to “map” Indigeneity onto certain characters. In the case of the first Alien film at least, I read the intrusion of the Nostromo crew onto LV-426 — and the Xenomorph’s subsequent defense against the invaders — as a story of Indigenous resistance against an extractive colonizing force. (The planet LV-426, by the way, isn’t the “traditional” home world of the Xenomorph, adding another familiar level of Indigenous displacement onto my parallax reading.) The Final Girl is a figure who speaks to me as a woman and as a feminist but is not necessarily compatible with my experiences as an Indigenous woman, especially since, in films like Prophecy (1979), The Manitou (1978), Scalps (1983), and to a partial degree Poltergeist (1982), the Indigenous people are the monsters chasing down and murdering young women and girls.

I often wonder: How is it that Native people — and Native women in particular — can grow to love horror, a genre that frequently fails to acknowledge that we still exist and, at worst, thinks that Indigenous peoples are a bunch of monsters? Jade Daniels, protagonist of Stephen Graham Jones’s newest novel, My Heart Is a Chainsaw, reckons with similar questions about horror, while trying to survive a murder spree and bearing the weight of a crushing personal trauma. Ultimately, Jones utilizes Jade as a tool to produce a loving, critical, and tender send-up of the slasher, and the novel becomes a refreshing horror narrative which finally names Native peoples as an avid audience of the slasher genre.

Set in the fictional town of Proofrock, Idaho, the novel opens on the latest local tragedy when the mutilated body of a tourist washes up on the shore of Indian Lake, a site of many mysterious and haunting events in Proofrock. As Jade reveals to readers through the writings in her SLASHER 101 papers — short first-person narratives which Jade composes for her high school history teacher Mr. Holmes and which intersperse the narrative — Indian Lake was the place where, during the town’s initial period of settlement, a young Native girl named Stacey Graves was outed as a witch when a childish prank went wrong. Graves is rumored to be behind a series of murders in town, including a spree of deaths which occurred at the now abandoned summer camp — dubbed “Camp Blood” by the locals — just years prior to Jade’s birth.

Presently, the town also faces another ominous threat creeping up out of the opposing shore of Indian Lake: Terra Nova, a new multi-million-dollar real-estate development for the superrich, threatens to gentrify and overtake the town. While many of the locals welcome the money that this development project brings into town, others, like the curmudgeonly Mr. Holmes, can smell the blood in the water. As the connections between the town’s past and its present become clearer, violence explodes, and it is soon up to Jade and Terra Nova transfer student Letha Mondragon to discover the identity of the masked killer behind the recent rash of murders.

Jade, ultimately, forms the core of the novel’s narrative. A 17-year-old Native girl who has earned a reputation as the town loner, Jade is more Crazy Ralph than Alice in the slasher plot she maps onto the events unfolding in Proofrock. In My Heart Is a Chainsaw, Jade wields an encyclopedic knowledge of horror as a tool of protection against her — and her town’s — disturbing past. However, despite her mastery of the genre’s conventions, Jade spends most of the novel vacillating between states of delirious excitement and self-doubt, never quite able to determine whether her fantasies of a slasher rising out of the lake really are coming true. It may just be she’s watched too many movies and now sees Michael Myers emerging from behind every rock, tree, and hedge: “When you’re wearing slasher goggles, everything can look like a slasher.”

Despite her aptitude for connecting the events unfolding in Proofrock, Jade cannot “see” herself as a Final Girl in the story for many reasons, most prominently because her own experiences of abuse, in her mind, preclude her from conforming to the Final Girl image of the pure and virginal maiden. Instead, Jade becomes convinced that Letha is the real Final Girl of Proofrock’s latest slasher plot. Letha seems to represent everything Jade lacks: physical prowess, popularity, humility, and empathy for the town. But Jade soon tries to do everything she can to “prepare” Letha for her upcoming showdown with the masked murderer, including giving Letha her prized machete and surreptitiously mailing her a copy of the 1971 Mario Bava–directed Giallo A Bay of Blood.

Throughout the novel, Jade, like many fans of the horror genre, chooses to focus on those elements of the genre she finds exciting and empowering while ignoring those which may be regressive and troubling. In moments like these, the figure of the Final Girl looms large over the narrative, and Jade, unlike the reader, never manages to consciously comprehend how the archetype’s repressive and at times unattainable standards can do more harm than good to young women.

Thematically, My Heart Is a Chainsaw shares several commonalities with Jones’s previous best-selling novel, The Only Good Indians. There, the monstrous antagonist Elk Head Woman seeks justice for the needless slaughter of her calf and fellow elk, and so takes matters into her own hands by slashing her way through the guilty hunters one by one. Jade, like Elk Head Woman, harbors a deep desire for revenge, and it becomes clear that she is attracted to the slasher in part because the Jasons, Michaels, and Freddys of the silver screen represent to her the powers of vengeance coming back to set the scales of justice into balance.

Early on in the novel, it becomes clear to the reader that Jade’s love of horror serves as a kind of defense mechanism, a way for her to feel like the powerful expert connecting the pieces of a terrifying and unorderly world. When Jade runs away from her father’s home, she crosses paths with the characters Shooting Glasses and Mismatched Gloves, two Native men who are working on the construction of houses in nearby Terra Nova. Their small talk soon takes a dark turn: the men inform Jade that their colleague has recently died on the job, and she quickly spins the situation into a slasher plot right before their eyes. But as Jade begins to get her and the men caught up in her terrible fantasies, her tough facade breaks down. Eventually, Shooting Glasses manages to interrupt Jade’s morbid musings with the obvious question — “Are you really, like, running from something?” — implying that Jade might be turning toward horror in order to conceal something even more troubling. Jade responds, or rather, avoids responding by running away from the sympathetic men. From that moment on, Jade never seems to stop running away from this question.

While Jade’s skewed perception may help her to uncover the truth behind the murders happening in town, her hyper-focused perspective obscures just as much from her. Throughout the novel, Jade struggles with discerning whether the things she’s discovering are the truth or just the things she wants to see. While a paranoid reading practice tends to help many Final Girls in slasher films, it also distinguishes them from the other characters to the point that it often drives them into total social isolation. It’s part of the path that leads the Final Girl toward her violent showdown with the killer — left alone with the monster for too long, the Final Girl begins to take on the characteristics of the monster. In Carpenter’s original Halloween, we see Laurie Strode transform — against her will and often for the sake of others — from an innocent teen into a ruthless fighter. Unfortunately, once this transformation begins, there’s no turning back.

This devastating transformation is precisely what happens to Jade, as she eventually runs away from Letha and Mr. Holmes when each of them pushes Jade to share the truth about her family trauma. Since we readers perceive the events of the novel from this perspective, we are left with the challenge of sorting out fantasy from reality. Jade is a character that’s easy to fall in love with, but Jones plays upon this likability to build on the mystery of her past. The great magic trick of the novel that Jones executes is that he exploits our tendency to identify with the Final Girl to lead us astray. It is in this way that the novel shines as both a celebration of Finals Girls and a cautionary critique of unwavering fanaticism.

Ultimately, Carol J. Clover’s observation that Final Girls can be both conservative and revolutionary mirrors the lesson Jade learns through the course of the novel: horror can be both poison and panacea. While the world of the slasher can be one of justice and order, it is just as much a place of chaos and cruelty — and how it all shakes out depends just as much on who is writing the story as who is interpreting it.


Kali Simmons is an assistant professor of Indigenous Nations Studies at Portland State University.

LARB Contributor

Kali Simmons is an assistant professor of Indigenous Nations Studies at Portland State University. She holds a PhD in English from the University of California, Riverside. An Indigenous feminist scholar of Oglala Lakota descent, her work examines depictions of North American Native peoples in film and literature with an emphasis on the genres of horror and speculative fiction. Her research has appeared in the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies and she has an essay on horror and Indigenous representation forthcoming in the journal Science Fiction Film and Television.


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